In the first French Revolution of 1770, Marie Antoinette overturned the musical conventions of a stuffy French court. The second began in 1789, and she lost her head in 1793. Since, she has been stigmatised as the “Let them Eat Cake” exemplar of all that made the Bourbons — and Habsburg consorts — prime overthrowing material.
Two hundred years on, Opera Lafayette of Washington DC is attempting a rehab job. Far from being the stereotypical aristo depicted in the Sophia Coppola film Marie Antoinette (2006), Ryan Brown, artistic director of Opera Lafayette, is determined to record the Austrian import queen’s important contribution to French musical development.
That influence extended well beyond mainland France ‚ to what the French call “France d’outre-mer”, administered to this day as an integral part of the Republique and, in the late 18th century, focused on the Caribbean, principally Saint-Domingue, the richest and most powerful of her colonies.
In a hugely ambitious project, Brown is mounting three festivals focused on the musical influence of three women — Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI, Queen of France; Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV; and Madame de Maintenon, the second wife of Louis XIV.
It’s a bit rich to be asked to swallow the unconvincing lure that this is a celebration of women’s lib — the queens who wore the musical trousers. Even more, that running the festivals in reverse chronological order is anything more than picking the ripest plum first. Good try!
But, ripe plum it is, as the story of the Austrian Princess’ arrival at the French court and her immediate overthrow of the established musical order is fascinating and justifies the subtext to the festival’s blurb; “rediscovered”. If this festival works, the other two will follow. As Opera Lafayette is meticulous in releasing its output on CD and DVD and On-Demand the benefits of their labours will be available to all.
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Brown’s mission is to change our received review of Marie Antoinette. His musical triple bill certainly destroys the myth that she was little more than a thoughtless toff.
For starters, on arrival at her private theatre at the Château de Petit Trianon, Rameau and Lully, stalwarts of Bourbon music-making, were unceremoniously tossed par la fenêtre and in came Gluck, Hinner and Mozart. The internationalisation of French court music had begun.
Operas with “rebellious” social themes — poor people winning out over the rich — were staged, and brain was celebrated over genetic accident. Meanwhile, Mozart was to pull off the same trick in Vienna with The Marriage of Figaro in 1786.
This festival of three musical events and a series of lectures, some at the stunning French consulate on 5th Avenue — the association with the American Revolution’s principal ally was being milked for all its worth — formed the programme.
Up first, The Musical Salon of Marie Antoinette focused on the queen’s favourite composers; Francesco Petrini, CW von Gluck — Gluck taught her the harp — Mozart and others. Marie Antoinette’s own Romances for voice and harp — C’est mon ami — are well worth a listen.
This is romantic output from a skilled composer and as compelling as anything to be found in the Belle Epoque one hundred years later. Brown is onto something here.
Concert Spirituel aux Caribes, which I saw at El Museo del Barrio, 5th Avenue at 125th Street, was an astonishing programme of religious works founded on the mainstream French musical tradition but crafted to the local tastes of the San Dominique population, native and imported slaves.
Proceedings began with a Messe en cantiques, grounded on folk airs, sung by a small chorus of slaves, escaping their plight in music. Read across to southern state American spirituals.
The 90-minute concert was uninterrupted and flowed among chorus, soloists and the orchestra, which included an unlikely thunder machine.
The mesmerising show was galvanised by Maestro Pedro Memelsdorff, an Argentinian medievalist and flautist, who put his whole being into driving the ensemble on, creating surprisingly modern dissonances. He danced around the stage mesmerically – voodooed.
Concert Spirituel au Jour de Noel comprised a series of eleven un-seasonal works ranging from a Pergolesi Grave from Stabat Mater to a piece by Italian composer, Egidio Duni, Ce qui séduit les dames.
The evening was rounded off with a reprise of Messe en cantiques, the final bars dying away in the mouths of the reverent slaves. It wrung the heart, and the audience cheered to the echo.
Sylvain, an opera by André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry, libretto by Jean-François Marmontel, was the third leg to the Marie Antoinette stool. Pastoral fever was sweeping France in the 1770s. Sylvain was its musical expression.
John Honoré Fragonard, meanwhile, delivered it to the walls of Paris salons in cloying, Arcadian paint. Most of the Fragonards are now in New York’s Frick collection.
Opera Lafayette is involved in nothing less than a crusade. As “bring on the new” is the mantra of most opera companies trying to cut a dash in a crowded market, “bring back the old” is a “bold” strategy, as Sir Humphrey often counselled Prime Minister James Hacker in the BBC’s still relevant Yes, Prime Minister. In fact, it’s so relevant, Auntie still runs it on BBC4.
Ryan Brown, his dedicated company and host of highly committed supporters, do a terrific job. I have changed my mind about Marie Antoinette.
I said as much in enthusiastic Franglais to a bemused waiter at the French Consulate at the pre-Festival drinks reception. He turned out to be the French Consul. Doh!
And Another Thing!
David Lloyd-Jones, co-founder of Leeds-based Opera North, has died, aged 87.
In the 1970s, Lloyd-Jones was a protagonist of musical levelling up, long before that became a convenient political slogan for doing bugger-all badly. He and the Earl of Harewood, another doyen of English arts, brought the opera art-form, literally, north.
First, with the assistance of English National Opera, then as an independent company, in 1979 the good folk of Barnsley, Scarborough, Darlington and Leeds could enjoy Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, up there with their glitzier counterparts in London’s Covent Garden and Coliseum.
Lloyd-Jones was a talented conductor in his own right — he loved Russian literature and opera. Prokofiev’s The Love of Three Oranges and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov thrilled audiences, wrongly caricatured as having little interest in anything more imaginative than Eccles cakes.
The 60s and 70s were decades in which non-metropolitan opera flourished. Scottish Opera celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, following in the footsteps of Welsh National Opera founded in 1943 — mid-war!
Now cost clipping makes that era seem like golden enlightenment. I am told Nicola Sturgeon, that vaunted nationalist, has yet to set foot in Scottish Opera’s Glasgow Theatre Royal.
Lloyd-Jones could easily have made his mark on the glam international opera circuit, but chose to plough a different furrow, bringing pleasure and a window on the live opera art form to thousands.
A tall man, with an imposing presence, he was a giant of opera in every sense.