I have long admired Mademoiselle de Guise. A woman with birth, wealth, and power in the France of Louis XIV, she preferred to do her own thing, away from the histrionics and subterfuges of the Sun King’s dazzling court. Blessed with immense drive, taste and energy, not to mention character, she devoted her life and considerable fortune to cultural and charitable pursuits, especially once it became clear (after some untimely deaths in the House of Guise) that she would be the very last of her line. And one of her main pursuits and pleasures was music. A lifelong friend of the Medici, having spent her twenties in exile in Florence, Marie’s well-known passion for Italian music drew her to be Charpentier’s patron and champion, not only giving him an apartment in the Hôtel de Guise and commissioning works from him for 17 years, but also building his reputation with her powerful friends.

Charpentier was a key component of a bigger project: long before she died, Mlle de Guise’s highly musical household was said to rival those of the kings of Europe in skill. The two works we heard at Wigmore Hall were both composed by Charpentier for Mlle de Guise’s court towards the end of her life; and apart from the wonderful sense of luxury, beauty and proficiency, it is the intimacy of this music which is most exciting for us today. Closing your eyes while listening, you could easily imagine yourself in a gilt-edged salon, with Her Highness Mademoiselle Marie de Lorraine, Duchess of Guise, peer of France, princess of Joinville, hereditary seneschal of Champagne herself sitting not far from you, enjoying and approving every lovely note.

Sophie Junker © Christina Raphaelle
Sophie Junker
© Christina Raphaelle

The Early Opera Company, with Christian Curnyn conducting from the harpsichord, created a warm and shining sound throughout, playing with verve, balance and smooth finesse. Charpentier’s Sonate à huit opened the evening, its nine movements showcasing the talents of the Orchestra of the Early Opera Company admirably, particularly the soloists Reiko Ichise (viola da gamba) and Emily Ashton (bass violin), and also Thomas Dunford, who impressed throughout on the theorbo. Setting a languorous, rounded tone for the music to come, with some playful moments, and other dreamlike ones, the sonata sounded altogether mellifluous, soft, and plangent.

La descente d’Orphée aux enfers opens with lilting, dancing rhythms, played with colour and inexorable energy by the Orchestra of the Early Opera Company. As the work progresses, it is not quite opera, nor pastoral, nor a cantata – it is somewhere in between. For me, the most exquisite moments were always the choruses; Charpentier’s manuscript allots all parts by first name (Isabelle, Brion, Carlié), and in the context of the Hôtel de Guise, where so many musicians lived, ate and worked together, this piece seems to radiate with the warmth of a community in harmony with itself and the world.  

Sophie Junker was in gorgeous voice for Daphne, Énone, and Proserpine, making the most of Wigmore Hall’s acoustic, singing with strength, subtlety and supreme confidence, and a palpable sense of enjoyment; I could not have enjoyed her performance more. Marie Elliott joined Junker in the first half as Aréthuze, another nymph, for whom Charpentier creates some very pretty harmonies. Euridice was delicately and deftly sung by Katherine Manley, her sudden death scene particularly affecting. Callum Thorpe was fabulous as Pluton, with a huge, dark voice which astonished and delighted in equal measure: I cannot wait to see him sing again. His portrayal of the resentful Lord of Hades thundering angrily in his kingdom was not easily to be forgotten. As Orphée, Ed Lyon was impassioned, anguished, and carefully skilful at all times; though not always entirely convincing dramatically for me, he too gave a memorable performance. The tormented souls were fabulous, with some wonderfully unusual harmonies and textures: Titye (William Berger, who also played Apollon), Ixion ( Zachary Wilder) and Tantale (Daniel Auchincloss) all brought their cruel sufferings to life in their desperation to ask Orphée to stay and distract them from the agonies of hell.

Orphée seems to be unfinished: the manuscript ends not with “Fin”, but “Fin du deuxième acte,” implying a third act to finish (now lost). Charpentier had the choice, classically, of two endings: the tragic (after Virgil and Ovid), in which Orpheus turns back too soon to look at his love, thereby losing her forever, despite all his efforts; or the later, victorious version in which Orpheus does successfully rescue Eurydice from the underworld. Given the empowering, enlightening role music played in the life and household of Mlle de Guise, not to mention the affecting beauty of this particular work which celebrates the joy of music-making in every bar, I strongly suspect Charpentier’s original finished with Music triumphant. This evening certainly did.