CHARPENTIER Impressions d'Italie. Didon. La Vie du poète. La Fete des myrtes
Here are Charpentier’s two auditions for the Prix de Rome written in Paris in 1887 and two ‘on-site’ winner’s pieces (Rome 1888/89). They bear witness to a composer not only influenced by Liszt’s symphonic poems and their helter-skelter attitude to form but an orchestrator – especially in his use of brass – with a gift for unusual perspectives and ‘offstage’ effects. (Here he made common cause with Mahler, who championed Louise at the Vienna Court Opera.) Melodically speaking there appear to be two Charpentiers: the spinner of colourful tunes who anticipates Strauss and Respighi in ‘Napoli’ (from the ‘symphonie pittoresque’ Impressions d’Italie) and the economical crafter of leitmotifs in the audition cantata Didon.
Two of the works here pointed to a serious future for Charpentier in opera. ‘Ivresse’ is the finale to his first Rome score, La vie du poète, which would later become the opera Julien. It shows already the widescreen grip of bustling street scenes of which Charpentier’s revered master Massenet and Puccini made a speciality. Didon – a 30-minute opera in all but name – can hold company with Purcell and Berlioz in its treatment of the crisis of conscience that besets Aeneas while out hunting with his newly beloved Dido.
In Didon it is Anchise, the spirit of Enée’s father, who reminds the Roman hero of his destiny in ‘Italie’. Charpentier’s astutely paced building of the scene – from anguished solo for Didon to full-scale trio followed by brief envoi for Didon, a super-economical version of ‘Ah, je vais mourir’ or ‘When I am laid’ – cries out for staging, as does the dark colouring of the lower brass as Aeneas admits his conflict of interest. There is little Berlioz-like about Charpentier’s writing but it may not be wholly a coincidence that a strong martial motif accompanies all references here to the glory that will become Rome.
Elsewhere, the earlier parts of Impressions d’Italie and La vie du poète show off a more traditional side of Charpentier as symphonic poet/melodist, while La fête des myrtes – a premiere both in performance and on disc – reveal him to be a cunning choral setter and up-to-date harmonist. As in other issues in this series, the standard of performance under Hervé Niquet and his chosen Belgian soloists and ensembles easily crosses over from archive duty into committed championship. The Brussels and Antwerp recordings are most natural. A huge recommendation, especially for Didon.