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Hyperion Records

CDA68035 - A French Baroque Diva
Portrait of Marie Fel (1757) by Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1704-1888)
Musée Antoine Lecuyer, Saint-Quentin / Giraudon / Bridgeman Art Library, London
All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, United Kingdom
Release date: June 2014
Total duration: 72 minutes 54 seconds


'This is a brilliantly planned and executed, musically illustrated biography of Marie Fel, one of the great 18th-century divas and muse of Rameau, admired by the Philosophes and adored by Paris audiences … this is a programme that pleases as much today as it did in hers, guided by Graham Sadler’s beautifully crafted booklet-notes … Carolyn Sampson, in superb form, is joined here by the choir of Ex Cathedra, who sing with precision and clarity of articulation in a lovely bright acoustic … the longer we listen to Sampson’s voice, the more she seems to inhabit the aura of Fel, clearly a skilled and charismatic yet deeply affecting performer' (Gramophone) » More

'This extremely well researched recording is captivating. Based on repertoire performed by Marie Fel, the ‘Jenny Lind’ of the court of Louis XV, it ranges from the restrained elegance of de Lalande to the Italianate excitement of Mondonville … in standing in for Fel, Carolyn Sampson is quite remarkable. She has the capacity to soften the vocal line with carefully controlled vibrato, but also deploys tone of crystalline clarity. There are many highlights, but the characteristically colourful excerpt from Mondonville's Daphnis et Alcimadure is particularly delightful as is Rameau’s La lyre enchantée' (BBC Music Magazine) » More

'Celebrating the work of a singer described by Voltaire as an ‘adorable nightingale’ is a terrific idea for a recording, especially when it has been prepared with such care and performed so stylishly … from the start, it’s clear that Carolyn Sampson is an ideal exponent, stylishly supported by Ex Cathedra and its period-instrument orchestra … this is a lovely disc, a most attractive programme supported by Graham Sadler’s illuminating and extremely interesting note (in a booklet that also includes complete texts and translations). The sound is up to Hyperion’s usual standard, capturing Sampson’s voice extremely well, in a natural balance. The whole production has provided me with hours of pleasure' (International Record Review) » More

'Marie Fel was the diva of her day and the darling of the French baroque. In this exquisite release from soprano Carolyn Sampson and Ex Cathedra, Sampson steps into Fel's dainty silk slippers and guides us through a life in music … Sampson’s rounded tone and poised musicality find a natural fit in this repertoire, showcased beautifully in ‘Un tendre intérêt vous appelle’ from Rameau’s Castor et Pollux and Lalande’s sacrilegiously lovely ‘Tu Rex gloriae’' ( » More

A French Baroque Diva
Arias for Marie Fel
Accordez vos sons et vos pas  [3'44] FREE DOWNLOAD TRACK FrançaisEnglish
Contredanse  [1'45]

A welcome return of Carolyn Sampson and Ex Cathedra to Hyperion, performing the rich, fulsome music of the French Baroque. Their recording of love songs from Rameau’s operas (Hyperion CDA67447) was hugely acclaimed for Sampson’s stylish, fluid, seductive performances, and ten years later her artistry is even more dazzling.

This album is of particular interest as rather than concentrating on one composer it showcases the works written for the premiere soprano of the day, Marie Fel. Voltaire called her his ‘adorable nightingale’. For d’Aquin, she was an enchanted being. Marie Fel was the soprano who held an entire generation spellbound at the Paris Opéra and at Louis XV’s court during one of the most glorious periods of French music. With a voice described as ‘pure, charming, silvery’ (La Borde), ‘touching and sublime’ (Grimm) and ‘always lovely, always seductive’ (d’Aquin), she inspired some of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s finest music and introduced a whole new level of virtuosity and expression into the French singing tradition. Her long, triumphant career is traced through this fascinating recording.

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Voltaire called her his ‘adorable nightingale’. For d’Aquin, she was an enchanted being. Marie Fel was the soprano who held an entire generation spellbound at the Paris Opéra and at Louis XV’s court during one of the most glorious periods of French music. With a voice described as ‘pure, charming, silvery’ (La Borde), ‘touching and sublime’ (Grimm) and ‘always lovely, always seductive’ (d’Aquin), she inspired some of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s finest music and introduced a whole new level of virtuosity and expression into the French singing tradition.

Marie Fel was born on 24 October 1713 in Bordeaux, where her father was an organist. At the age of twenty, she was talent-spotted by an agent from the Paris Opéra along with her brother, who was also a singer. She made her debut at the Académie royale de musique (as the Opéra was officially known) on 29 October 1734, taking the role of Venus in the Prologue to Louis Lacoste’s Philomèle, a tragédie en musique first performed in 1705 and enjoying its third revival. At the start of the Prologue, the goddess sings a moving plainte, ‘Ah! quand reviendront nos beaux jours?’ (track 1), in which she laments the absence of Peace. The musical style takes us back almost to the beginnings of French opera, established by Jean-Baptiste Lully in the 1670s. Indeed, there is little in Lacoste’s setting that would sound out of place in a Lullian opera. Venus’s vocal line, with scarcely a hint of distracting vocal display, adopts the expressive rise-and-fall of a sensitive declamation of the text, enhanced by a sumptuous accompaniment of five-part strings and by the choral interjections of her attendants, the Pleasures, Graces and Sports.

Soon after her debut, Marie Fel began lessons with the distinguished Italian soprano Christina Somis (1704–1783), who had arrived in Paris in 1734. From Somis she learned an Italian style of singing that equipped her with a technical facility hitherto unrivalled among French singers. Her roles for the next few years were nevertheless exclusively secondary ones: at this stage, contemporary reports emphasize her singing ability rather than her acting. Indeed, it was not until 1745 that Marie was given a major dramatic part, when she appeared as the magnificently zany La Folie in Rameau’s Platée. The extent of Marie’s newly developed virtuosity is nicely illustrated in an ariette from this opera, ‘Amour, lance tes traits’ (track 10). Here a somewhat embarrassed Momus, disguised as Cupid and carrying a bow and arrow ‘d’une grandeur ridicule’, is exhorted by La Folie to empty his quiver. This ariette is a fine example of a new kind of French aria, thoroughly Italianate in its bravura vocalises and long-held notes demanding consummate breath control. Marie revived the role in 1749 and again in 1754.

For Marie Fel the role of La Folie proved a turning point, since it evidently convinced the management that she was capable of taking major dramatic parts. From then until her retirement from the Opéra in 1758, Marie created almost all the principal female roles in new works; she also took the leading parts in revivals of existing operas, as in Rameau’s Castor et Pollux (1737) at its 1754 revival. In this work, the powerful soliloquy ‘Tristes apprêts’ (track 9), with its sparse vocal line and sombre accompaniment of obbligato bassoons and strings, demands a rare dramatic intensity, as the bereft Télaïre renounces the light of day in response to the death of her beloved Castor. For Berlioz, this was ‘one of the most sublime conceptions of dramatic music’.

D’Aquin records that Marie Fel ‘sings Italian and Provençal like Mlle Faustine when she was in her prime’. (The reference is to Handel’s prima donna Faustina Bordoni.) Marie’s origins in the south of France made her an ideal choice for the female lead in Daphnis et Alcimadure, an opera by Mondonville on a libretto written in Occitan, the language of the composer’s native Languedoc. Mondonville’s charming pastorale languedocienne was commissioned for performance in the presence of Louis XV at Fontainebleau in 1754. As the aria ‘Gasouillats auzeléts’ (track 11) reveals, the composer knew how to exploit Marie’s unrivalled ability to evoke the singing of birds.

A year before she retired from the Opéra, Marie Fel took part in the 1757 revival of Rameau’s Les surprises de l’Amour, originally written for a production in Madame de Pompadour’s private theatre at Versailles in 1748. For this revival, Rameau replaced the role of Amour (Cupid) with a special part for Marie. Here she plays the Siren Parthenope, who devises a plan to trick her rival, the Muse Urania. In a divertissement (tracks 16-20) beginning ‘Accordez vos sons et vos pas’, Parthenope summons her attendant Sirens to cast a spell on her lyre that will make the severe Urania sensitive to love. This scene provides Rameau with an opportunity to indulge in some colourful orchestral effects, notably the use of multiple-stopped pizzicato chords to represent the plucking of the lyre.

Alongside her operatic career, Marie Fel also excelled as a concert soloist. Less than a week after her first appearance at the Opéra, she made her debut at the Concert Spirituel, the institution that presented sacred and instrumental music on religious festivals when opera was forbidden. On 1 November 1734 she took part in Exsurgat Deus, a motet à grand chœur by Michel-Richard de Lalande, Louis XV’s chapel master. The fifth movement of this work, ‘Regna terrae’ (track 2), provided Marie with the perfect ‘star’ vehicle for her debut: against a joyous choral backdrop, the singer projects a series of increasingly virtuosic solo episodes of a kind that ideally suited her ‘admirable precision and unique agility’ (d’Aquin).

Lalande’s motets proved immensely popular at the Concert Spirituel. In creating what is sometimes (misleadingly) known as the ‘Versailles motet’, with soloists, chorus and orchestra, Lalande had established a counterpart to Lully’s tragédie en musique, these two uniquely French genres being regarded as emblems of the nation’s musical identity. During her thirty-five-year career at the Concert Spirituel, Marie Fel took part in innumerable performances of these works, among them the famous Te Deum laudamus (tracks 3-5), notable not only for its pomp and splendour but also for its rapt setting of the verse ‘Tu ad liberandum suscepturus hominem’. Much the most popular, however, was Lalande’s Cantate Domino, performed there at least sixty-five times. It was in this work, indeed, that Marie bade her farewell to the Concert Spirituel, on Christmas Day 1769. She chose to go out with a bang: the virtuoso fifth movement of this work, ‘Viderunt omnes termini terrae’ (track 21), is especially memorable for the passages in which the voice spars playfully with a solo oboe and bassoon.

In 1752 Marie Fel came into contact with the renowned philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His one-act opera Le devin du village, in which she took the principal female role, proved a smash-hit at the French court, and Rousseau was so taken by her voice that he composed a Salve regina (tracks 6-8) for her to sing at the Concert Spirituel that same year. The Mercure de France enthused about this thoroughly Pergolesian piece and its performance: Mlle Fel sang it ‘as she alone knows how to sing. Much tunefulness and expression have been found in this motet, and connoisseurs hope that Mr Rousseau will continue to enrich secular and sacred music with his works’.

Marie was especially renowned for her interpretation of music by foreign composers. One perennial favourite at the Concert Spirituel was Joseph Hector Fiocco’s buoyant setting of the psalm Laudate pueri (tracks 12-14), which she first performed on 8 December 1750 and, thereafter, every year until 1763, always ‘with that good taste, that agility and precision which render her so superior in her art’. The original set of performing parts survives, one of them including her own ornamentation markings, which have been taken into account in the present recording.

In 1752, the German philosopher Melchior von Grimm attended a performance of Mondonville’s motet Venite, exsultemus at the Concert Spirituel. So smitten was he with this work that he dashed off a letter to the Mercure de France: ‘I have just heard the most beautiful piece of declamation in existence—the solo ‘Venite, adoremus’, sung by Mlle Fel in a sublime and celestial manner, as befits the way it is composed.’ Indeed, in this movement (track 15), with its magical duet between voice and flute, Mondonville had discovered a transcendent register of expression, one that was ideally suited not only to the reflective text but also to Marie’s way of singing. A similar mood returns in ‘Hodie si vocem’ (track 22) from the same motet, enhanced this time by the devoutly restrained contribution of the chorus, to generate in its three-minute span a veiled intensity to which mere words can scarcely do justice.

Although Marie Fel was not considered to be conventionally beautiful, a pastel by her lover Quentin de La Tour, exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1757, projects an image of haunting beauty that helps explain some of her mesmeric power. As d’Aquin put it: ‘Always lovely, always seductive, each sound you generate is a sentiment that penetrates the heart and captivates the senses.’ This was a gift she never lost. Over twenty years after her retirement, La Borde (1780) reports that she continued to sing: ‘The voice is still as young as ever and continues to astonish the small number of friends to whom she has devoted the final years of her life.’ As Voltaire, one of this privileged circle, put it: ‘Those who have only ears admire you; those who have feeling as well as ears love you.’

Graham Sadler © 2014

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