William Christie and Les Arts Florissants are the premier interpreters of the works of Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Charpentier, born in Paris in 1643, studied in Rome when he was 17 with Carissimi, a master of church music. He returns to France in 1670 when he was 27 and is under the patronage of Marie de Lorraine and he remains under her patronage as a composer and singer for the next 17 years. During this time he also collaborated with Moliere's Comedie Francaise. He served for a few years as composer for the chapel of the Dauphin but was never given a royal appointment by Louis XIV. At this time Lully dominated the music of the court of Louis XIV. However he was named as the master of music of the Church of St. Louis which was known for it outstanding music and then master of music of Sainte-Chapelle, that architectural gem in the center of Paris. Here he remained until he died at age 61. Whereas much of his career was devoted to religious music, he had exceptional abilities to compose musical drama, as this CD testifies. The topic of Orpheus is fitting for opera since it is about the power of music to even overcome death.
The main characters in this dreamy opera are Orpheus and his new young bride Euridice, who is bitten by a poisonous snake on their wedding day. Orpheus descends to Hades to persuade Pluto to allow Euridice to return to life on earth. There are other shades in Hades and these characters make Hades a very musical place. It is Pluto's wife Proserpine who convinces her husband to allow Euridice to return and here the opera ends.
The beauty of this opera is outstanding. There is a short overture followed by a cascade of selections sung by the characters in the upper world and most expressively by the characters of the underworld. The cast is superb and of the highest expertise and talent. Tenor Paul Agnew sings the role of Orpheus and his mastery of this role and his expressive voice is delightful, expressive, perfectly controlled, and emotive. The scale of this opera is perfect. It has a relatively small cast and chorus and almost minimal orchestration that is crystal clear and precise in its support of the singers. The voices flow and the instrumentation is in perfect proportion. It is jewel-like in realization. I am listening to it now as I write this review and the beauty of the compositions and performances suspends the movement of my fingers. I am touched by its beautifully sad and balanced perfection.