Friday 1 May 2015

The Enchanted Forest

The Enchanted Forest - Les Passions de l'Ame
Geminiani The Enchanted Forest, Handel Armida Abbandonata; Robin Johannsen, Meret Luthi, Les Passions de l'Ame; Deutsche Harmonia Mundi
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 24 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Vibrant European mix - English 18th century pantomime in France with music by a London-based Italian composer

The English tradition of pantomime has a long and complex history. Arising out of the Harlequinade which English theatre companies developed out of commedia dell'arte characters, in 18th century London theatre companies had grafted classical stories onto the Harlequinade. The more serious two acts, divided by comic business from Harlequin, led to a transformation scene and the final Harlequinade. Stagings were spectacular and completely unspoken, consisting of only dancing and gestures; most theatres in London were not licensed for spoken drama and besides many of the performers were French.

In 1754 the French born, Italian trained painter, decorator, architect, stage director and impresario Jean-Nicolas Servan (1695-1766) also known as Giovanni Niccolo Servandoni produced the pantomime La forêt enchantée (The Enchanted Forest), based on the story of Rinaldo and Armida from Tasso's Gerusalmme Liberata. Servan had worked in England, creating the decoration for public festivals, and The Enchanted Forest was one of a series of theatrical events in which he combined the English idea of telling a story via pantomime, with the French gift for spectacular stagecraft. With The Enchanted Forest though he went one further, and instead of using a hack to assemble music from existing sources, he commissioned a score from a named composer Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762).

Les Passions de l'Ame -Photo Guillaume Perret
Les Passions de l'Ame -Photo Guillaume Perret
On this new disc, on Deutche Harmonia Mundi, from the Swiss ensemble Les Passions de l'Ame, directed by violinist Meret Luthi we hear Geminiani's complete ballet The Enchanted Forest in a programme themed on Rinaldo and Armida, which also includes Geminiani's Concerto Grosso in D minor 'La Follia' and Handel's contata Dietro lorme fugaci, HWV 105 (Armida abbandonata).

Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762) was an Italian violinist and composer who had trained under Alessandro Scarlatti and Corelli. From 1715 he was largely based in London, with periods in Paris and in Dublin, and often led Handel's orchestra. Geminiani was one of the finest violinists of the period and is best remembered today for his important treatise on violin playing which was published  1751. He wrote a number of sets of concerto grossi. His 1726/27 concerto grossi were arranged from Corelli's Opus 5 set and the Concerto in D minor is based on Corelli's La Folia which consists of 24 variations on La Folia. The original solo violin part is unchanged, but Geminiani adds a second solo part and creates some richer textures.

Here, describing the work as Geminiani's wild variations interpreted as Armida's diary, Meret Luthi and Les Passions de l'Ame give a virtuosic and richly vivid performance bringing out the wildness of contrast in the individual variations, and clearly revelling in the richness of Geminiani's textures.

The music for Geminiani's pantomime, The Enchanted Forest has not survived, instead we have a two part orchestral work which Geminiani arranged from it. Eighteen short, highly varied movements, which must have formed the backbone to Servan's stage work but whose relationship to the plot we don't know. Guesses can be made, the scenes with trumpets and horns are clearly related to the hunt and the flutes add a pastoral element. This is not subtle music. It is highly coloured and each movement is short and often they finish abruptly and bump into each other. Presumably the original had linking sections of mime (think classic versions of Petipa's big ballets) which have been largely dropped. Les Passions de l'Ame clearly enjoy the music and they play it with character and verve, giving a performance which zips along and carries you with it in their enthusiasm.

Jean Nicolas Servan
Jean Nicolas Servan
Parked in the middle, a little breathless and bewildered, is Handel's Armida; a very different lady indeed. Handel's cantata was written in 1707 for his patron in Rome, Count Ruspoli, and may have been performed on an excursion to Ruspoli's country seat Viganello, possibly by the soprano Margherita Durastantini who worked a lot with Handel in Rome and would work with him again in London. The anonymous text is less concerned with outward effects than with inward torment as Armida hurls empty threats at the departing Rinaldo. It consists of the standard sequence of recitative and aria, but the second recitative is an accompanied one in which Armida invokes sea monsters to harm Rinaldo, but then realises she still loves him and the final aria is quietly despairing as she asks the winds to cease.

Australian soprano Robin Johannsen has beautifully plangent voice and sings the cantata with great style and beauty. She brings clarity to the passagework, some fire to the more dramatic sections and a poised poignancy to the final aria. But the join back into Geminiani's richer and more vibrant sound world is something of a shock and I could have wished that the works had been separated a little more.

Geminiani's The Enchanted Forest has cropped on disc before, La Stagione recorded it in 1999 paired with a programme of concerto grossi, but it does not crop up as often as you might expect. The performance from Les Passions de l'Ame is perhaps a little robust at times but it makes all the more for a vivid theatrical experience. So, this fine and intriguing disc with its captivatingly vibrant performances allows us to recapture a little of the magic which must have been the full stage performances of The Enchanted Forest.

Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762) - Concerto Grosso in D minor (after Corelli's Op.5 No. 12) 'La Follia'
Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762) - The Enchanted Forest (prima parte Nos. 1 -11)
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) - Dietro l'orme fugaci (Armida ababandonata) HWV 105
Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762) - The Enchanted Forest (parte seconda Nos. 12 -18)
Robin Johannsen (soprano)
Meret Luthi (direction)
Les Passions de l'Ame
Recorded 4-7 January 2014, Yehudi Menuhin Forum, Bern
DEUTSCHE HARMONIA MUNDI 88843040882 1CD [60.08]
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