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André CAMPRA (1660-1744) L'Europe galante
Caroline Muthel, Heather Newhouse (soprano), Isabelle Druet (mezzo-soprano), Anders J. Dahlin (tenor), Nicolas Courjal, Jérémie Delvert (baritone)
Les Nouveau Caractères/Sébastien d'Hérin
rec. 2017, Théâtre de la Reine, Versailles, France
Texts and translations included CHÂTEAU DE VERSAILLES SPECTACLESCVS002 [2 CDs: 122.50]
The name of André Campra is inextricably connected to L'Europe galante, an opéra-ballet which is considered the first work in this particular genre. It received its first performance in 1697 at the Académie Royale de Musique in Paris, under the direction of Marin Marais. The libretto was from the pen of Antoine Houdar de la Motte, an author whose first works did not enjoy much appreciation, but who continued writing opera librettos after the success of Campra's L'Europe galante.
André Campra was born in Aix-en-Provence where he received his first music lessons from his father, who was a surgeon and violinist. In 1674 he became a choirboy at St Sauveur and began ecclesiastical studies in 1678. In the 1680s he acted as maître de chapelle in Arles and maître de musique in Toulouse. In 1694 he was given four month's leave in Paris, but did not return to Toulouse. That year he was appointed maître de musique at Notre Dame cathedral. His Italianate leanings came to the fore when he introduced violins to support the choir. It was almost inevitable that the music theatre exerted an attraction on him. He had always shown a keen interest in musical theatre. In 1681, when he was at Aix, he was threatened with dismissal for having participated in theatrical performances without authorization.
When in 1697 L'Europe Galante was performed, the name of the composer was kept a secret. The reason Campra tried to hide his involvement in operatic performances was the clergy's opposition to the stage. But as his forays into the operatic scene were successful, he decided to leave his post at the Notre Dame and to concentrate on opera. After de death of Louis XIV, he took profit of the climate under the regency of Philippe of Orléans, when there was more openness towards opera and the influence of the Italian style.
According to New Groves "[an] opéra-ballet normally consists of a prologue and three or four acts (called entrées), each with its own set of characters and its own plot; the plot usually relates in a general way to a collective idea expressed in the overall title of the work, and each entrée includes at least one divertissement of songs and dances." The 'collective idea' in L'Europe galante is the various ways different peoples deal with love: France, Spain, Italy and Turkey. Houdar de La Motte summarized it thus in his preface: "We followed the rather simple ideas of what characterizes the different people's spirit. The Frenchman is depicted as fickle, indiscreet, a charmer; the Spaniard, faithful and quixotic; the Italian, jealous, subtle and violent; and finally, there is the clearest expression that can be expected of the theatre concerning the nobility and sovereignty of the Sultans and the impulsiveness of the Sultanas".
What was really new in Campra's work was not so much its structure, but the fact that the characters are from everyday life. They replace the mythological and allegorical characters which dominated the tragédie-lyrique. "No more magic, Gods or special effects with the help of machinery; the stories rely on the amorous sweet talk of young heroes in archetypal geographical environments allowing for a varied scenography", Thomas Soury states in his liner-notes.
The subject matter also reflects a growing awareness of differences between the people of Europe, which composers tried to express in their music, such as Georg Philipp Telemann in some of his orchestral suites. In the course of the 18th century it would lead to a vivid interest in peoples and cultures outside Europe, as one can see in, for instance, Rameau's Les Indes Galantes. The latter was composed under the influence of Campra's ground-breaking work.
As one may expect from an opéra-ballet, dances take an important part of this work. There is even more instrumental music than the track-list indicates, as a number of airs are introduced by instrumental sections of considerable length. The performers have done some research into performance practice of especially the string parts. The performing habits go back to Jean-Baptiste Lully, the founder of French opera. He required a homogeneity of bowings with very strict rules, and the players of the bass instruments should hold their bow from above with the thumb "under the horsehair". "Each first beat of the bar had to be taken 'from below' what we call today a 'down bow'", as Christophe Robert explains in the booklet. He admits that this is known, but seldom practised, because it is so different from modern technique. The positioning of the musicians in the orchestra is also different from common practice today. On the basis of descriptions of the 17th and 18th centuries, the players are in a line turned towards the theatre, back to the public, facing another line of musicians. This shows that much has been done to achieve a performance which does justice to performance practice in Campra's time. Unfortunately that did not include the use of historical pronunciation.
How then does it sound? Very good, I am happy to say. The playing of the orchestra is outstanding, and the dances come off perfectly. The singing is often the weak spot in operas of the baroque period, but here there is little to complain. Caroline Mutel uses a little too much vibrato, but her colleagues behave very well in this regard. In particular Isabelle Druet and Anders J. Dahlin make a very good impression. There is little to say about the dramatic aspect, as these four entrées are not very dramatic. There are certainly conflicts between the protagonists, but they are rather modest in nature. The singers play different roles in the respective entrées, and they are well aware of that. Nicolas Courjal, for instance, makes a clear difference between the role of Silvandre in the Première entrée and that of Zuliman in the Quatrième entrée.
The presentation could have been better. There are several tracks, in which a soloist alternates with the choir, but the latter's involvement is not indicated. Some of the minor roles are sung by members of the choir. Unfortunately it is not indicated which roles they sing. It is notable that the arias in another language than French - Spanish and Italian - are not translated, not in English and even not in French. Is that because they are nonsensical rather than proper Spanish and Italian? In the last entrée we also hear some airs in another language than French, apparently a kind of imitation Italian.
This recording may be the first complete account of l'Europe galante. Mostly only extracts are performed and recorded, for instance in the early days of historical performance practice by La Petite Bande, directed by Gustav Leonhardt. It was a legendary recording, which is still worth listening to. However, we should be grateful that this production offers the opportunity to listen to this important work at full length.
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