a woman scorned and her deadly revenge -- seems a predestined subject for opera and has inspired at least four or five, but all have been forgotten except Luigi Cherubini's "Medea," which served spectacularly as a vehicle for Maria Callas.
A century before Cherubini, the story was given an equally noteworthy operatic embodiment by Marc Antoine Charpentier. His "Mede'e" is a work of great musical skill and emotional power, but its premiere in 1693 was coldly received because of intrigues at the court of King Louis XIV, and it was withdrawn after a few performances. It was published in 1694, but it went without a complete performance or recording for nearly three centuries.
Now available in an excellent recording from Harmonia Mundi (HMC 1139.41, 3 LPs with libretto), "Mede'e" can be recognized as one of the finest operas of the French Baroque era. Its strengths are both dramatic and musical; the libretto is by Thomas Corneille, the lesser-known but skilled brother of the famous tragedian Pierre Corneille, and he gave Charpentier a text with believable characters, firm motivation and dramatic tension that mounts inexorably through five acts -- not elements that can be taken for granted in a Baroque libretto. It was done, of course, within the conventions of the genre, including a prologue written explicitly to flatter the Sun King and a lot of provisions for ballet and elaborate stage spectacle, reflecting Medea's skills as a sorceress. But even with its Baroque mannerisms, it puts the old story closer to modern sensibilities than the text of Euripides.
Until the past few years, Charpentier was known almost entirely through his religious music. His secular works, now beginning to come to light, reveal what almost amounts to a new composer. His style in "Mede'e," as in the recently recorded pastoral cantata "Acte'on," is sophisticated, flexible and highly emotive. The heart of his dramatic writing lies in the recitatives -- supple, powerfully expressive and imbued with the clarity that is a special virtue of so much French art. They are the chief vehicle of the dramatic action, but they rise repeatedly into arias, ensembles and choruses when the story's pent-up feelings rise to elaborate expression.
As in "Acte'on," the recording of "Mede'e" has been put in the hands of the Arts Florissants Ensemble, directed by William Christie -- a group that is adding a new dimension to the interpretation of French Baroque music. There are no international star names in the cast, which is headed by Jill Feldman, Jacques Bona, Agnes Mellon and Gilles Ragon, but all are experts in the style of the period and they produce a fine, idiomatic performance.
Almost as neglected as "Mede'e," though not for quite as long (it is just under a century old), is "Le Roi Malgre' Lui" by Emmanuel Chabrier. There has never been much doubt about the musical quality of this work, which lies somewhere between opera and operetta in its style. "I would rather have written 'Le Roi Malgre' Lui' than the 'Ring' Cycle," Ravel once said, and listening to the playful elegance of the music it is easy to see why. This opera was the victim of a crazy, mixed-up libretto that was worked on by four writers -- including the composer in a final fit of desperation. But the work's interest does not depend on the story of Henri de Valois, who would have preferred to stay in sunny France rather than become king of Poland in 1574. The plot, in which Henri encourages a Polish revolt against himself, is simply ignored in the first recording of this opera, which omits the spoken dialogue and concentrates on the scintillating music.
Charles Dutoit conducts a French Radio orchestra and chorus in a brilliant performance (Erato NUM 751623, three LPs with libretto), and there are sparkling solo performances by Barbara Hendricks, Peter Jeffes, Gino Quilico and Jean-Philippe Lafont. A few other members of the cast are not always up to the standards set by these four, but this recording is still a delight.
Other recent recordings of French music:
* Rameau: "Pygmalion." Michael Goldthorpe, Marilyn Hill-Smith, Anne-Marie Rode; English Bach Festival Singers and Baroque Orchestra, Nicholas McGegan conductor (Erato STU 71507, with text and translation). Nicholas McGegan has built a substantial following here since he began working with the Washington Opera. The precision, stylistic alertness and vigor that he has shown in the pit of the Terrace Theater are delightfully present in this recording of a little masterpiece based on the Greek legend that also inspired "My Fair Lady." The three English soloists handle the brief French libretto skillfully. But a major attraction of this work (as usual in French Baroque opera) lies in the dance numbers. They come vividly to life under McGegan's baton.
* Rameau: "Les Indes Galantes," Orchestral Suite. Orchestre de la Chapelle Royale, Philippe Herreweghe conductor (Harmonia Mundi LP 1130; CD 901130). This generous selection from Rameau's best known opera-ballet includes 22 brief dance numbers sandwiched between the overture and the splendid concluding chaconne. Excellent recording captures the distinctive sound of the period instruments with fine fidelity, but the conductor might profit by studying the technique of Christie and McGegan on the records noted above.
* Chausson: Concerto for violin, piano and string quartet, Op. 21. Re'gis Pasquier, Jean-Claude Pennetier, Roland Daugareil, Genevieve Simonot, Bruno Pasquier and Roland Pidoux (Harmonia Mundi LP HMC1135; compact disc HMC 90 1135). The Concerto is another substantial and satisfying work that has been in eclipse until recently but is now making a strong comeback. Its attraction grows with each new hearing, and it is given full justice in this performance by an ensemble deeply attuned to the composer's moody, melodious late-Romantic style. Some listeners may find even more power, however, in the recording issued last year by CBS, featuring Itzhak Perlman, Jorge Bolet and the Juilliard Quartet. The compact disc offers a substantial bonus not available on the LP: the Piece for cello and piano in C, Op. 39.