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Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643 - 1704)
Judith ou Béthule libérée - Le Massacre des Innocents
Judith sive Bethulia liberata (H 391) [41:53]
Caedes Sanctorum Innocentium (H 411) [17:26]
Dagmar Sasková (soprano), Erwin Aros (hautecontre), Jean-François Novelli (tenor), Arnaud Richard (baritone)
Les Pages, les Chantres and les Symphonistes du Centre de musique baroque de Versailles/Olivier Schneebeli
rec. live, 5-6 October 2012, Chapelle Royale, Versailles Palace, France. DDD
Texts included, translations in French
K617 K617242 [59:19]

Marc-Antoine Charpentier is generally considered the greatest dramatic talent among all the French composers of the 17th century. He could have developed into the main composer of operas of his time, if there hadn't been a certain Jean-Baptiste Lully who dominated the music scene in France and did everything to frustrate any ambition in this department Charpentier may have held. The latter cooperated with the playwright Molière for several years in the genre of the comedy, and even here Lully tried to make Charpentier's life as difficult as possible. It was thanks to his connections with especially Marie de Lorraine that he was able to explore his talents. These found their way into his many sacred compostions, among them several sets of Leçons de Ténèbres. The fact that he had studied for some years in Rome and that his compositions were clearly influenced by the Italian style didn't make his position any easier.
This influence comes especially to the fore in a genre which is generally called 'oratorio', or histoire sacrée in French. Charpentier himself used various terms to describe these compositions, such as historia, canticum, dialogus or just motet. They strongly vary in subject, length and character, but they are all unmistakably influenced by the oratorios of Giacomo Carissimi. It is not documented that the latter was Charpentier's formal teacher during his three years in Rome, but he must have heard and absorbed Carissimi's oratorios, which were generally considered exemplary. Charpentier composed about 35 pieces in this genre at least five of which were written for the musical establishment of Marie de Lorraine.
One of them is Caedes Sanctorum Innocentium or the Massacre of the Innocents - a short but highly dramatic treatment of this biblical subject. It begins with an angel urging Joseph and Mary to flee to Egypt, because King Herod wants to kill baby Jesus. The narrator, called historicus, then quotes the well-known passage from the gospel of St Matthew, referring to the prophet Jeremiah and often set to music: Vox in Rama. Then Herod turns up who orders his soldiers to kill all children of two years and younger. In the ensuing episode Charpentier juxtaposes two choruses: the choir of the mothers (high voices) and that of the soldiers (low voices) which sing against each other in often warlike style. The work ends with a reference to the Last Judgement.
A popular subject among composers of the 17th and 18th centuries was the story of Judith, described in the apocryphal book from the Old Testament that bears her name. The story is about Betulia, a city in Israel which is beleaguered by the Assyrians. Its situation is becoming more precarious by the day, and the inhabitants begin to consider surrender. Then one of them, Judith, announces she has a plan to liberate the city. She leaves Betulia and visits Holofernes, the captain of the Assyrians. She has dinner with him, and when he is drunk she kills him with his own sword and takes his head with her to show it to the people. It is the beginning of the end of the siege of the city. Two famous compositions on this subject are Vivaldi's oratorio Juditha triumphans and Mozart's La Betulia liberata, the latter on a libretto by Metastasio.
The oratorio is divided into two parts. In the first we hear choruses in which the opposing camps express their feelings about the situation. Next the story is told, which obviously means that we hear long recitatives by the historicus and the two main characters, Judith and Holofernes. The role of the historicus is allocated to various voices or groups of voices, much in the style of Carissimi. The recitative-like episodes sometimes turn into arioso-style passages which creates some variety within the oratorio; as do the various choruses of the Israelites and the Assyrians.
The dramatic or expressive character of the choruses comes off well in this performance. The choir comprises children's and adult voices. These parts are not always as transparent as they should be, though. That could well be partly due to the acoustic circumstances, as this is a recording of a live performance. A studio production may have been more satisfying in this respect. It is questionable whether a choir of this size - more than 30 - is in line with what Charpentier had at his disposal.
The solo parts are excellently performed, and that goes in particular for Dagmar Sasková who gives an incisive account of the role of Judith. Arnaud Richard is impressive as Holofernes in Judith and as Herod in Caedes Sanctorum Innocentium. The instrumental ensemble is very small: two recorders, two violins and bc, and their role is limited. In these two compositions the drama and the affetti are exclusively created by the voices, and Olivier Schneebeli has managed to bring that across convincingly. It is a shame, though, that the lyrics are not available in an English translation.
Johan van Veen