Giving life to an overlooked operatic gem

Moritz von Schwind, Queen of the Night, about 1864-1867, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

An exciting new academic and musical collaboration involving the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions will bring a little-known baroque opera to the stage for its first-ever Australian outing.

Frenchman Marc-Antoine Charpentier wrote the two-act chamber opera La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers (The Descent of Orpheus to the Underworld) in 1686, but it has rarely been performed and has never been heard in Australia.

The collaboration between CHE’s Melbourne node, the Early Music Studio at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (MCM) and the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) will see students and staff recreating Charpentier’s opera with all the musical idiosyncrasies of the period.

All staff involved have had strong associations with CHE: senior lecturer Erin Helyard is a current associate artist and will direct the production from the harpsichord; Professor Jane Davidson is CHE’s deputy director and will provide a re-imagined modern staging; Stephen Grant, Head of Voice and the Early Music Studio is a former associate artist and will train the singers; and senior lecturer David Irving is a former AI and will direct the orchestra. VCA Production students will assist with staging, lighting, sets and costumes. As much as possible, the project aims to capture the spirit of the French baroque musical form and the emotional intentions of the composer.

An engraving from the 1682 Almanach Royal thought to be Charpentier. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Born in Paris in 1643, Charpentier was heavily influenced by the music of the Italian peninsula and his compositions are lyrical, dramatic and full of raw emotion. Though prolific and brilliant, the composer sadly failed to reach the dizzy heights of fame during his lifetime due to the political posturing of his powerful rival Jean Baptiste Lully, as well as ill-health and simple bad luck. His remarkable creative output has largely been overlooked – something CHE and the Early Music Studio is keen to help redress.

The opera tells the well-known tale of the poet and musician Orpheus, a hugely important figure in classical Greek mythology, who travels to the underworld to try to retrieve his wife Eurydice after she is fatally bitten by a viper. An inspiration to artists for centuries, the Orpheus myth has been famously tackled by such esteemed composers as Monteverdi, Haydn, Liszt and Stravinsky so it will be fascinating to explore the nuances of Charpentier’s little-known take on it.

‘Orpheus Before Pluto and Proserpina’ François Bourguignon Perrier (1590 – 1650), Paris, Musée du Louvre

The French baroque operatic form will present unique challenges for the University of Melbourne students, few of whom have performed work from this era previously. In the laboratory-like setting of the Early Music Studio, working with student singers, the team anticipates being able to fully explore the possibilities of historical immersion, from both a musical and aesthetic perspective.

The highly codified and stylised modes of performing in baroque times will require students to learn new ways of communicating a range of emotions. With few audio or visual recordings available for this opera, singers will need to learn emotional cues from the past that will no doubt feel quite foreign to their modern minds. While challenging, we hope the experience will inspire and delight our young performers.

In tandem with this unique production, CHE and the Musicological Society of Australia will host Opera: The Art of Emotions, a collaboratory investigating how emotions have been conceived, performed and experienced across the history of opera.

Through workshops, forums and papers the collaboratory will explore some of the ways that emotions history can help uncover and rebuild some of opera’s complex layers of meaning. Professor Neal Zaslaw from Cornell University, USA, will provide a keynote address.

CHE’s collaboratory will run from 30 September to 1 October at the Wyselaskie Auditorium, 29 College Crescent, Parkville.

La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers will be performed on September 28 and 29 at the Grant Street Theatre, Southbank campus of the Faculty of the VCA and MCM, at The University of Melbourne. Click here for further info and booking details.


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