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Pastorale & Masque

Miniature Masterpieces from the Dawn of Opera

by Roger Brunyate

 

  A Dance to the Music of Time, 1638
A Dance to the Music of Time
Painting by Poussin, 1638
In 1987, to inaugurate what has since become an annual series of productions of early opera, harpsichordist Webb Wiggins and I devised a program entitled Pastorale & Masque, which we presented in the Renaissance Court of the Walters Art Gallery. Webb has now left Peabody, but early opera is still alive and well. To proclaim it so, we have decided to repeat the original program in the larger spaces of our own theatre, the Miriam A. Friedberg Concert Hall. Musical preparation will be in the hands of harpsichordist and conductor Joseph Gascho. Rather than directing myself, I have engaged baroque dance specialist Paige Whitley-Bauguess to choreograph the entire production and to direct two of the three works in it. The dancers as well as the singers will be students in the Peabody Opera Department.

The program will open with Claudio Monteverdi’s dance pastoral Tirsi e Clori (1616), continue with Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s one-act tragedy Actéon (c. 1684), and end after an intermission with the wedding masque from Henry Purcell’s Dioclesian (1690). These three works reflect the origins of opera in court masque: short, but often quite elaborate pieces, designed for private performance.

Claudio Monteverdi in later years, portrait by Bernardo Strozzi, 1640  
Monteverdi in Later Years
Portrait by Bernardo Strozzi, 1640
All three pieces further exemplify the genre of pastorale, being set in a classical Arcadia where nymphs and shepherds mingle with gods and goddesses. A similar celebration of an idealized rustic simplicity can be found running through renaissance and baroque painting from Giorgione and Titian, through Claude and Poussin, to Fragonard and Watteau. It is a curious paradox that one of the most sophisticated expressions of court culture should have been an embodiment of the desire to get away from it all!

Monteverdi wrote his dramatic ballet, Tirsi e Clori for performance at the court of the Duke of Mantua in 1616; the text was by Alessandro Striggio, the librettist of his Orfeo of 1609. Monteverdi later published the piece in his seventh book of madrigals (1619) — and appropriately so, for both music and text are closer in style to a madrigal than to opera, using strophic verse forms rather than arioso or recitative. The work opens with a wooing scene between the shepherd and nymph of the title, and ends with a celebration of their union, which is metaphorically refered to as a dance. Before joining the dance as partners, Tirsi and Clori proclaim that, for them, there is no other worthy dance partner — or rather life partner. As befits the ballo form, the whole thing is infused with the spirit of the dance, and in fact the five-voice madrigal group who accompany the celebration are little more than a vocal orchestra for the dances which make up the larger part of the whole. Although the music is continuous, Paige Whitley-Bauguess has identified renaissance dance rhythms in its various sections and will use specific renaissance dance forms along with the appropriate beginning and ending courtesies in her choreography of the ballo.

Actaeon and Diana, by Titian  
Actaeon sees Diana Bathing
Painting by Titian, 1559
Actéon (c. 1684) was one of a number of pastoral chamber operas which Marc-Antoine Charpentier wrote for his patroness, the Duchess of Guise, for performance by her small resident ensemble of singers and instrumentalists. Once more, the setting is Arcadia, but the subject is mythological, taken from the Metamorphoses of Ovid. These Arcadian groves are inhabited by the goddess Diana and the nymphs who attend on her. But they are also used by a group of huntsmen, one of whom, Actaeon, has the misfortune to chance upon Diana while she is bathing.
  The Death of Actaeon, by Titian
The Death of Actaeon
Painting by Titian, 1562
To punish him for his temerity and to prevent him from telling what he has seen, the angry goddess changes him into a stag, at which point (in the story though not on the stage) he is set upon and devoured by his own hounds. Charpentier’s compact setting of this story makes the most of the contrast between the masculine world of the huntsmen and the feminine one of Diana and her nymphs; the bathing scene especially is a sequence of solos and ensembles of exquisite beauty. But some of the most striking music in the dramatic sense are the two extended solos for Actaeon: before he sees Diana, and as he realizes that his body is changing into that of an animal before his eyes.

  Bacchus, by Rubens, 1631-33
Bacchus
Painting by Rubens, 1638–40
The play Dioclesian, or The Prophetess, by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger, dates from the beginning of the 17th century, from 1622. It was revived, however, by Thomas Betterton in 1690, and adapted to serve as a vehicle for Purcell’s music. As he was to do with his other semi-operas such as King Arthur (1691) and The Fairy Queen (1692), Purcell did not set any of the dramatic action to music, but instead inserted songs and dances into a condensed version of the original text. Only the final scene of the work is conceived as a continuous sequence of musical numbers; it is this that we shall be performing. After various warlike events in the earlier part of the play, the hero Diocles marries his original sweetheart and goes into retirement in the country. The masque is thus simultaneously a wedding celebration (like an extended version of Tirsi e Clori)
Bacchanal before a Statue of Pan, by Poussin  
Bacchanal before a Statue of Pan
Painting by Poussin, 1631–l33
and an allegorical narrative in which the heroic and pastoral elements are finally reconciled. The scene is introduced by Cupid, and many of the episodes which follow present variations — comic, allegorical, or serious — on the pursuit of the sexes. A particularly rambunctious element is provided by the introduction of Bacchus and his followers, exemplifying another escapist fantasy of court life, that of the bacchanal or orgy, in which the normal bounds of decorum may be released. The work ends with a magnificent chaconne in which the singing of a solo trio is punctuated by the full resources of the baroque orchestra.

Pastorale & Masque playbill          Photographs by Kathleen Sweadner          Return to top

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