Monday 21 March 2022

Le Destin du nouveau siècle: a hitherto unknown opera-ballet by André Campra provides a glimpse into the largest Jesuit teaching institution in Paris, and some engaging music

André Campra Le Destin du nouveau siècle; Marc Mauillon, Mathias Vidal, Florie Valiquette, Claire Lefilliatre, Thomas van Essen, La Tempesta, Patrick Bismuth; Château de Versailles Spectacles

André Campra Le Destin du nouveau siècle; Marc Mauillon, Mathias Vidal, Florie Valiquette, Claire Lefilliatre, Thomas van Essen, La Tempesta, Patrick Bismuth; Château de Versailles Spectacles

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 March 2022 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A hitherto unknown opera-ballet gives us a glimpse of France on the cusp of the 18th century.

This new disc from Patrick Bismuth and La Tempesta presents the first recording of a hitherto unknown opera ballet by André Campra, Le Destin du nouveau siècle with soloists Marc Mauillon, Mathias Vidal, Florie Valiquette, Claire Lefilliatre and Thomas van Essen, plus Les Chantres du Centre de musique baroque de Versailles, on the Château de Versailles Spectacles label.

Lasting some 80 minutes the work is an examination of how the future century might unfold, a very apt subject for a work premiered in 1700 at a time when King Louis XIV had been on the throne for 57 years and the glories of the Sun King's kingdom had rather faded. The opera was in fact a teaching exercise, one of around a dozen works that Campra wrote for the College de Louis-le-Grand, one of the biggest Jesuit institutions in Paris and where theatre was regarded as a suitable teaching tool for future public leaders who would need the skills of public speaking, recitation and dance. For the opera-ballet, it is probable that dancers from the school (aged 8 to 16) were partnered by professional musicians and singers.

Unfortunately, almost nothing is preserved of the works written for the college by composers such as Campra, Charpentier and Collasse, all we have is a few programmes. So it is all the more remarkable that, when in 2015 research was being done in the National Archives in Paris towards an educational project, the score identified as a possible one for the project which lay in a hitherto relatively obscure collection in Saint Denis, turned out to be the score of Campra's Le Destin du nouveau siècle.

There are, however, several questions hanging over the surviving material.

It seems to have been confiscated from a religious establishment in Northern Paris at the time of the Revolution, but no-one knows which (at the moment). Secondly the manuscript dates from 1740, some 40 years after the premiere of the work. At that time Campra was still alive, but he was old, ill and living near Versailles; was he involved in this 1740s project in Northern Paris? The next question is concerning the material itself.  From what we know of the work's premiere, Le Destin du nouveau siècle was almost certainly a class project (rather than one of the far grander events that involved the whole school) so at 80 minutes it seems rather too large and grand, and for the 1740 event was inserted into an even larger work. All this means we are not quite certain what we are listening to, and this uncertainty extends to the instrumental forces as styles had changed considerably in the intervening 40 years.

So, what we are listening to seems to be music from 1700, filtered somehow through the 1740s. No doubt further research will elucidate matters, but the work as it exists is definitely worth more than a cursory listen.

At the opening, Saturn announces that he wants to give the world a new age, and from then on in the work the supporters of Peace and of War argue, one side wanting eternal War the other arguing for the Pleasures of Peace. In the end Pallas provides balance, and all is concluded with a grand final Chaconne. This Chaconne apart, the work is made up of a series of small movements, interleaving solos, ensembles and dance movements with dance predominating (of the 51 tracks, some 34 involve singing). The solo parts are all relatively small, and four of the five soloists double roles with further small roles being filled by members of the choir.

This is very much an occasional work. The plot is simply an excuse for some marvellous music, yet there is an intriguing aspect too. Pere Jean-Antoine Du Cerceau's libretto is entirely conventional, but with hindsight or knowledge of events in 18th century France gives the piece an added point. The music has a vigorous directness which perhaps comes partly from it being a didactic work. That is not to say it lacks sophistication, and Patrick Bismuth brings great style to the performances. The performers bring a vigour to their performances that, perhaps, sometimes shades into roughness but the result has great vividness.

It is not often that a significant work comes to light in a library, and we must be delighted that Campra's opera-ballet again sees light of day, and the vigorous yet stylish performances give us much to enjoy.

André Campra (1660-1744) - Le destin du nouveau siècle
Claire Lefilliatre
Florie Valiquette
Marc Mauillon
Mathias Vidal
Thomas van Essen
La Tempesta
Les Chantres du Centre de musique baroque de Versailles
Patrick Bismuth (direction)
Recorded from 15 to 17 January 2021, at Opera Royal du Chateau de Versailles

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