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Rameau wrote two operas entitled Anacréon. This is the earlier of the two, dating from 1754 and with a libretto by Louis de Cahusac. It had a successful premiere followed by some performances in Paris after the composer’s death, but then fell into oblivion. From fragmented manuscripts scattered through Paris’s libraries, Dr Jonathan Williams has reconstructed the work and now directs this premiere recording with a cast of leading soloists and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.
Like Rameau’s masterpiece Pigmalion (1748), Anacréon has come down to us as an opera in one act, an acte de ballet. However, just as Pigmalion was originally intended for performance with other acts, it now seems probable that Anacréon and the one-act La naissance d’Osiris were once part of a multi-act opera entitled Les beaux jours de l’Amour. Begun during the early 1750s, this new work took the form of an opéra-ballet, a popular kind of composite opera made of self-contained acts linked by a common theme. (Les Indes galantes is Rameau’s best-known example.) However, the many layers of revision found in the autograph score of an unfinished third act, ‘Nelée et Mirthis’, reveal that the project ran into difficulty and was abandoned.
Thankfully, this was not the end for Anacréon or La Naissance d’Osiris for in 1754 an opportunity arose to perform them both separately at Court. Being self-contained acts, the reworking process should have been a simple matter. The poor reception of new Rameau operas in 1753, however, seems to have led the courtier in charge of royal entertainments, the Duc d’Aumont, to organise two extraordinary rehearsals at which the new works’ suitability for performance in front of the king could be assessed. Just what the septuagenarian Rameau thought of this vetting we don’t know, but it must have been with some relief that he eventually saw his Anacréon—with a little further revision—given at the royal château of Fontainebleau in October 1754.
Anacréon at Fontainebleau
For Napoleon it was ‘the true home of kings, the house of ages’. Situated some 40 miles south of Paris, the chateau of Fontainebleau became a residence of the kings of France in the twelfth century. Under the influence of François I and his successors the chateau was home to a movement known as the ‘school of Fontainebleau’ (c1530 to c1610) and to the finest works of art; it was here that the Mona Lisa resided for over a century before accompanying Louis XIV to Versailles. And it was to Fontainebleau that Louis XV’s several thousand courtiers repaired each autumn to enjoy the varied amusements of hunting, gambling and amorous intrigue. Lavish official entertainments were staged too. All tastes were catered for and at great expense. With performances of operas by Lully, Collasse, Rameau and Mondonville and plays by Corneille, Marivaux and Voltaire, the festival of music and drama which took place during the six-week voyage of 1754 was a particularly remarkable one.
The newly completed Anacréon received two performances on 23 and 26 October. These proved to be the only ones during Rameau’s lifetime for although Rameau and Cahusac subsequently made some important revisions to the work—namely reworking scene 2 and adding ‘Tendre Amour!’—Anacréon was not heard again until a Paris Opéra production was given in 1766, two years after Rameau’s death. After another short run in 1771, it suffered the fate of his entire output and disappeared into obscurity. Only with the renewed interest in early music in the 1890s was Rameau rediscovered: it was none other than Debussy who conducted an abridged version of Anacréon in 1909. Other performances have been given since, but it was not until 2012 that the first complete concert performance in modern times was given in Oxford by the musicians heard on this recording. A further performance with Baroque choreography by Edith Lalonger was given at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 2014.
Bringing Anacréon to life
A vivid picture of Anacréon’s first performances can be recreated from numerous documents now held in Archives nationales and Bibliothèque nationale in Paris: the records of the musicians, dancers and copyists employed, a bill from a carriage driver listing journeys made by Rameau to and from Paris (countersigned by Rameau himself) and details of the refreshments and numbers of candles used in rehearsal. Invoices from the costume designer and jewellers describe in great detail the clothes worn by the cast. Also surviving are drawings by the stage designers Sébastien-Antoine and Paul-Ambroise Slodtz of two pieces of scenery for Anacreon’s garden—‘latticed arbours embellished with gold [and] adorned with garlands of flowers’ to be placed in the wings and a backdrop depicting ‘tree-lined avenues enriched with various flowers and a white marble palace’. If only this wealth of sources extended to those for the music. From 1754 all that remains is an incomplete set of vocal parts and the libretto printed for the audience. Missing are the autograph score, the production score and all of the orchestral parts, including those of an Overture, now entirely lost. As a result, our version must therefore be based on the material which originates from Rameau’s revised version performed at the Paris Opéra in 1766 and 1771—an incomplete set of orchestral and vocal parts, three incomplete scores and a printed libretto. In presenting this version, we hope to reflect Rameau and Cahusac’s final thoughts on the work.
Cahusac described an opéra-ballet as being a succession of ‘pretty Watteaus’; and with its fluid structure of recitatives, airs, ariettes (virtuosic arias) and choruses, and with dance sequences which carry important narrative elements, Anacréon is a thoroughly French creation. However, we also witness Rameau seeking to keep his music in tune with the very latest musical trends, particularly here from Bohemia. The unison phrases and thrilling crescendos in the Ritournelle and first Air Vif are, for example, cutting-edge ideas drawn from the music of the Czech-born Mannheim symphonist who worked in Paris during the early 1750s, Johann Stamitz (1717–57). Similarly, Anacréon’s prominent use of horns can be traced to the arrival of players from Bohemia in the late 1740s. The two horn players of the Duc de Villeroy’s retinue must have been accomplished indeed to have dealt with Rameau’s challenging writing.
Cahusac’s libretto is full of endeavour too. The opera is set in Anacreon’s gardens where we find two youngsters, perhaps members of his poetry academy. First is Chloe, whom Horace describes as a ‘trembling fawn’ and whose very name (meaning ‘green’) emphasises her innocence. Here too is Bathyllus (Batile), a youth whom the poet Anacreon describes in several erotically-charged odes, an aspect omitted by Cahusac. Nevertheless, the relationship between Anacreon and his young charges certainly raises questions of those performing the opera today. It is perhaps helpful therefore to bear in mind the view of him found in the Mercure de France’s review of Anacréon in which Cahusac’s handling of the role is praised:
‘It was intended in this ballet to portray a character and that of Anacreon, the poet of good humour and enjoyment, was not easy to develop on the opera stage. The name of Anacreon represents to us the idea of an old man, admittedly very likable, but still the idea of an old man, and such an amorous character—or as Cahusac puts it, ‘ceaselessly playing with the Amours’—borders on the comical, even the ridiculous. This first obstacle had to be avoided…’.
The remarks of Thomas Moore in the preface to his 1806 translation of Anacreon’s Odes are useful too: ‘…the disposition of our poet was amiable; his morality was relaxed but not abandoned…He is sportive without being wanton, and ardent without being licentious’. While some of the sentiments expressed by the libertine Greek poet reportedly offended the devout Queen Marie, the overall perception of Anacreon was one therefore of a benign, jovial figure.
As in those for Les fêtes d’Hébé and Pigmalion, the libretto’s underlying theme is the power of the arts, in this case, the ability of Anacreon’s poetry to incite love. Bathyllus and Chloe identify their feelings for each other only through learning to perform Anacréon’s verses ‘Des Zéphyrs’ (incidentally an adaptation of Anacreon’s Ode 1, ‘Concerning his Lyre’) and ‘Mille fleurs’.
Typically, the text alludes to numerous other mythological personages: Flora, Hymen, Hebe and Erigone (the deities of fertility, marriage, youth and fertility), Zephyrus (the seductive west wind) and the Graces, the ‘lovely virgins whose forms were captivating, whose dresses were elegant but simple, and whose every motion, indeed, was unspeakable gracefulness’, as T W C Edwards describes them in his translations of Anacreon’s Odes (1830). At the head of this dynasty are Amour (Cupid)—the ‘arch, playful, dangerous urchin, armed with a bow, and a quiver full of arrows’—and Bacchus, whose followers (the satyr-like Silenus and the priestess Maenads or Bacchantes) would dance and drink themselves into a state of ecstatic frenzy and uncontrolled sexual behaviour. It is a Bacchanalian celebration which is enacted at Anacreon’s academy in Scene 6, complete with procession, dancing and a rousing hymn. This provides Cahusac and Rameau with the pretexts for spectacle, dance, mime and boisterous music to be integrated into the fabric of the narrative.
What does it all mean?
We witness two friends being galvanised into admitting their love publicly only when their relationship is threatened, and when they have fallen under the influence of Anacreon’s heady poetry. Taken at face value, the plot of Anacréon may seem rather whimsical to the modern opera-goer. In the hands of Rameau and Cahusac, however, such a drama becomes real and sustained. Like many opera plots, it is based on a narrative triangle—one dominant character in whose hands rest the happiness of two others. Here, all hangs on Chloe’s inability to confront her mentor in scene 2, and the knot tightens until Anacreon himself provides the dénouement in scene 5. Nowadays, the deference which Bathyllus and Chloe show their elder is problematic; seen in the light of the hierarchal society found at court (or in Anacreon’s poetry academy), however, where etiquette and status were rigorously observed, this plot hinge becomes more credible. Cahusac might have resolved the Anacreon triangle in a number of ways: the dénouement could be comic (with Anacreon humiliated at the altar), tragic (with Chloe and/or Bathyllus committing suicide), or even supernatural (with Amour descending from on high to resolve matters). However, as the audience knows from the start, it has never been Anacreon’s intention to separate the lovers—quite the opposite. No, what we have here is a fourth triangle, one motivated by Enlightenment ideals of sentiment and generosity, such as is found in Rameau’s ‘Turc généreux’ from Les Indes galantes—and in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail—where the enlightened Pasha Osman releases a member of his harem to be with her lover. With Bathyllus and Chloe’s marriage ensured, Anacreon’s poetry is now embodied in his two disciples; his work—his ‘ouvrage’—is complete.
So does this opera have a message, and, if so, to whom from whom? One intriguing possibility is that Anacréon may be one of many works of art commissioned by the powerful courtier Madame de Pompadour in an attempt to persuade Louis to resume their loving relationship. But, as Anacréon himself declares: ‘Let us surrender to sweet pleasure each instant that remains; and let us run to our dying day playing with the Cupids’. Carpe diem! Perhaps this is message enough?
Jonathan Williams © 2015
Chloe has been enjoying practising the verse Anacreon has written for her and arrives hoping to discover the reasons both for the forthcoming festivities and the inspiration behind such beautiful poetry. Still keeping his intentions hidden, Anacreon avoids answering and instead flatters and teases her, saying that he has been inspired by Cupid (Amour) himself. Misunderstanding, Chloe believes that Anacreon has fallen in love. Who is the lucky girl who had inspired such romantic and amorous feelings? Charmed by her confusion, he replies that it is in fact she who has been chosen by Cupid and that the celebrations are, in fact, to be a wedding…!
Alone, and realising only now that she has feelings and hopes for a future with Bathyllus, Chloe appeals to Cupid to save her.
Bathyllus arrives, so engrossed in learning Anacreon’s poem that he is unaware of Chloé’s distress. He performs it to Chloe who, on hearing its sentiments of love, is reduced to tears. Fearing that they are to be separated forever, she tells a disbelieving Bathyllus of Anacreon’s plans; the poem she is to sing only seems to confirm Anacreon’s intentions and her fears. Inspired by the verses and by their imminent separation, Chloe tells Bathyllus of her feelings for the first time. Before he can reply, they are interrupted by the arrival of the guests and the celebrations begin.
Anacreon and his young Theonian followers sing of the benefits of a life of pleasure. He calls on Chloe to perform her verse. Fearful and embarrassed, the two lovers struggle to explain that their friendship has developed into something greater. At last, Anacreon reveals that he has been teasing them; his purpose has been to make the friends acknowledge their love for each other and, by coming between them, to test the strength of their feelings. Overjoyed, the young lovers are united.
The festivities—an enactment of a Bacchanalian celebration—begin with dancing and with Chloe’s songs of the pleasures of love. The merriment concludes with a chorus in praise of Bacchus and Cupid, the gods of wine and love; may they reign forever!
Jonathan Williams © 2015