Campra (Le) Carnaval de Venise
André Campra (1660-1744) was born to an Italian father and French mother; so it’s peculiarly fitting that he should have been the composer of this curious but attractive work which is set in Venice to a libretto that veers between languages. Le carnaval de Venise is a comédie lyrique, first staged at the Paris Opéra in 1699. It takes the form of a play within a play. The Prologue is set in a theatre, where – as in Ariadne auf Naxos – preparations are under way for an opera performance. The opera in question is Orfeo nell’inferi: Pluto is charmed by Orpheus who is allowed to leave with Eurydice; Orpheus looks back and loses his wife for ever. In between comes the main story of love, both requited and unrequited, and, after the opera, Carnival leads a company of masks – joined by Eurydice, surprisingly – in the final revels.
There is much here that Campra inherited from the tragedies of Lully. The Prologue includes the customary praise of ‘the greatest King in the world’ – Louis XIV – and also a reference to ‘a great Prince’, the Dauphin. There are divertissements, the dances are enchanting, the vocal lines move seamlessly from recitative to aria, and the accompaniments are often fully scored. Campra is equally adept at setting Italian words: Isabelle’s ‘Mi dice la speranza’, charmingly sung by Salomé Haller, is but one example of a da capo aria, complete with melismas. And there’s a beautiful Italian version of the Lullian sommeil scene in the form of a flute-accompanied trio, ‘Luci belli, dormite’.
It is Isabelle who has the most intense scene: mistakenly believing her lover Léandre to be dead, she prepares to kill herself. Her opening words, ‘Mes yeux, fermez-vous à jamais’, return twice as a refrain. (You wait in vain for them to round off the aria, as they do in Véronique Gens’s recital ‘Tragédiennes’ – Virgin Classics, 8/06.) Despite this, and the wounded feelings of the unrequited lovers, the predominant mood is upbeat. Hervé Niquet and his forces – there are no weak links – give a performance to brighten up the dullest mood.