Marin Marais is best known for his instrumental Pièces de viole. After hearing this excellent CD from Montréal Baroque under Wieland Kuijken, you may well wish that Marais' repertoire on record extended to his operas in the same way that it now has for Vivaldi. Sémélé (from 1709) is actually the last of a handful of operas that also includes an 'Alcide' (in partnership with Lully's son) an 'Ariane et Bacchus' as well as 'Alcione'.
This is not surprising as Marais was employed both at the Académie royale de musique (as the Paris Opéra was then called) when he was only 20; and at the court in Versailles, where Lully, with whom Marais studied, had made such strides in balancing classical themes, true 'local' emotions and concerns with the instrumental innovations of the latter half of the seventeenth century. Indeed there are similarities between parts of Sémélé and some of Lully's best work. It has been conjectured that Marais early retirement from operatic composition to concentrate on work for the viola da gamba may actually have been so as to avoid the all-powerful Académie's 'surindendant' taking offense at his success!
So fair are comparisons with Lully in terms of melodic invention and orchestral palette in the case of what we do have recorded from Marais' Sémélé that it's hard to understand why this music is still underperformed and virtually all unrecorded… Charivari Agréable have one excerpt from the 'Alcione' Suites (Signum 32) and Vienna Concentus Musicus another (Vanguard 1276). The present CD from Atma only has the Ouverture et Danses; would that they attract some enterprising ear and eye to record the whole work.
Yet what dance music this is! Perky, thrumming, tuneful, energetic, varied in tempi, delicate and reflective. It truly gladdens the heart and often brings one up short at its sheer inventiveness and temperamentally mature balances of sounds. Sémélé was unsuccessful at its performances, which was probably due to lack of appeal by the libretto and the sets, costumes and staging rather than to any failings with the music. Dance music is de rigueur in French opera – as opposed to Italian – but the challenge is to make it necessary. Probably the (complete) sung work would throw up that challenge in starker relief than in this selection of instrumental excerpts does. For the moment, it's almost enough to enjoy the exquisite timbres and refined instrumentation and perhaps imagine the heavens interacting with the earth in a mostly rather delicate way (but see below) and marveling at Marais' command of orchestral color and pace.
What's remarkable for a suite without the singing is just how much drama and evident support of the plot this music does contain. This is particularly strong in some of the airs in the fourth and fifth acts, where Marais conjures up the storm and earthquakes that prove the Jupiter's identity. It's not overdone; Montréal Baroque with the ever elegant Kuijken make such painting more a matter of inference than bombast. Effective it is, though.
Indeed the Montréal Baroque ensemble plays splendidly throughout. In full control and with a mellowness and restraint despite some charged themes and subtle rhythms, it's tempting to think they know something about the full score that we, of course, don't. They strike a perfect balance between ensemble and soloist articulation and also convey the difference between one item and the next in the ways that Marais surely envisaged.
Another plus to this thoroughly recommended CD is the acoustic: recorded during the Montréal Baroque Festival in June 2006 at the Église Saint-Augustin de Mirabel, there is near perfect reverberation with all parts of the two-dozen or so strong orchestra clearly audible and nicely balanced. The CD booklet is informative, well-illustrated and tops off a disk that lovers of the French (and beyond) baroque really must not miss.
Copyright © 2007, Mark Sealey