Last Monday I ventured away from my usual theatrical fare of blood-soaked Jacobean vengeance and tried something a little different. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment are performing some candlelit concerts in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse this season, based around the concept of ‘original scores’. They present incidental music which was composed for early theatrical performances, originally intended to accompany ballets or intermezzi. This music is almost always stripped out of modern productions, leaving us with the bare unadorned text and, perhaps, depriving us of some of the subtleties which the playwright originally intended.
Incidental music could offer relief from the mood of the play; it could harmonise with it and reinforce it; or it could playfully undermine it. This particular concert focused on the music composed by Marc-Antoine Charpentier for Molière’s 1673 Le malade imaginaire (usually translated into English as The Hypochondriac). The programme noted that modern text-only productions of the play give the impression of a rather black comedy; but the music adds a light and playful touch. Molière’s original audiences would have seen something very unfamiliar to modern theatre-goers: a spirited blend of play, opera and ballet.
I liked the idea very much and was intrigued to discover that the concert was partly dramatised. After all, incidental music without its play makes even less sense than a play without its incidental music. As it turned out, semi-dramatisation presents problems of its own; but we’ll come to that in a moment. First: the music. I don’t have many parallels to draw on yet – I’ll have a splurge on Lully operas at some point but I want to get my head round the Italians first – and so the best I can do is to say that Charpentier is contemporary with late Cavalli. Le malade imaginaire was performed some thirty years after Elena and fifty years after Monteverdi’s Poppea, just to put it in context, and there’s a definite kinship in the music. I’m not sure how far that just reflects the style of the time, or whether it’s deliberately sending up Italian opera.
It can’t be accidental that Charpentier is at his most Italianate in the tongue-in-cheek love scene between Angelique and her lover (who is masquerading as her music master). Their improvised opera wallows in bucolic-pastoral clichés – there’s a shepherdess called Phyllis, for example – and Charpentier’s music takes on the rhythms of early arias or madrigals. He’s also rather Italianate in the intermezzo which features Pulcinello, and again I’m sure it must be a deliberate, rather comic touch: a humorous scene derived from the commedia dell’ arte, accompanied by recognisably Italianate music. And yet, for all the nods to Italian composers, Charpentier is at his most vivid and delightful when he allows his innate playfulness to break through.
The musicians were extremely good, as far as I can judge, and played with great gusto: the concert was obviously focused on them and, once you get a harpsichord, three violins, percussion, a cello and a theorbo on the Sam Wanamaker stage, there isn’t much room for acting in any case. The four singers doubled as actors (there were also two other actors who didn’t sing) and of these I most enjoyed Giles Underwood, who was listed as a bass but sounded more like a baritone to me. He didn’t just have a lovely strong voice: he was also a lively actor and he made a commendable job of singing falsetto at one point, where he pretended to be the maid Toinette at her window.
I was also very interested by Samuel Boden (the lover Cleantes), who was listened as a tenor but whose voice was pitched far higher than I was expecting; he’ll be singing in Purcell’s King Arthur at the Wigmore next year, so I might try to get to that. Sophie Junker was also present: I was very fond of her Drusilla at the Barbican, but I couldn’t help feeling she was a little underused here. I kept waiting for her to be given the chance to do something sparkling, but she was only brought on for three short pieces. Rosie Hilal, playing Angelique, was more actress than singer, but I liked her rendition of the mock-opera with Boden and she was immensely sympathetic as the lovelorn daughter tyrannised by her self-centred father.
The two non-singers were Mary Doherty, whose sparkily engaging Toinette was very much a proto-soubrette. Of all the actors, she was most at ease with the script and the performance: she really lit up the stage whenever she came on. Dickon Tyrrell, who doubled as Argan (the titular Hypochondriac) and Pulcinello, wasn’t quite as comfortable and unfortunately that posed a problem, although I did think he made a splendid job of the final ‘examination’ scene.
‘Semi-dramatised’ meant that extracts of the text were performed between the pieces of music, to keep us up to date with what was happening in the play and to provide context. The English translation by Caroline Williams was excellent: witty, bright and vulgar in all the right places. But the problem was that the actors didn’t seem fully prepared for their roles: everyone read from their scripts, which is the kiss of death for any dramatic performance. Delivery was stiffened and some of the life drained out of the acting: there was a back-and-forth between Pulcinello and the orchestra, for example, which would have felt much less stilted if it had been rattled off ‘spontaneously’ rather than read aloud from a book. There wasn’t anywhere near as much to remember as there would be in a proper play, and unfortunately the reliance on the scripts made the whole concert feel slightly like a rehearsal rather than the finished product.
I don’t want to be too critical, because it’s so interesting to see the music being restored to its place in early theatre, and an acknowledgement of the original interplay between actors and musicians. And it was lovely to hear the OAE in such a beautiful setting; I’d certainly be keen to go to another similar concert. However I’d have very much preferred a more natural performance of what text there was: I think it’s wise to keep parts of the play, but the actors need to have time to learn their parts. You can’t perform a play ‘in concert’ as easily as you can an opera, after all; and I couldn’t help feeling that this production was a curious beast, neither fish nor fowl. As sometimes happens, I’m rather a lone voice of dissent: the overall audience reaction shown in this post-show video was immensely positive (it’ll also give you a flavour of the performance, for those unable to get to the theatre). And, if you’d like to judge for yourself, you can see the same show on Sunday 9 November. And then you can come back and tell me how wrong I am…
However, my interest has certainly been piqued and further investigation has unearthed something which might appeal to those who are now wondering – as I am – what a full original performance of Le malade imaginaire might have been like. The doyen of Baroque theatre, William Christie, marshalled his ensemble Les Arts Florissant to perform a production in Paris in 2012, complete with full text and intact intermezzi (or so it seems), along with stupendous costumes which are spot-on for the 1670s date of the play. The bad news is that there doesn’t seem to be a DVD release, which is sad because it would have gone into the basket straight away; but the good news is that you can watch it on YouTube. It lacks subtitles, but looking on the bright side it’ll force me to practice my French.