Preview: Mêler L’Or De Ses Rayons – Two Operas for the Sun King

Madeleine Lempert 26 April 2019
Image Credit: Mêler L'Or De Ses Rayons via Facebook

Mêler L’or De Ses Rayons, a double bill of Baroque operas for the 26th and 27th of April, is a smooth and idyllic recreation of court performance in the late 1600s. A joint production from the Cambridge University Baroque Ensemble and the Emmanuel College Music Society, it combines two allegorical works celebrating the majesty of the Sun King, Louis XIV, to stunning effect.

What links the little-known prologue to Céphale et Procris by Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre with Charpentier’s famous and serene Les Arts Florissants? During the dress rehearsal of the production, what Assistant Director Louisa Stuart-Smith later described to me as a shared “pastoral celebration of beauty” manifested itself in the stagecraft as much as in the performances. The Director, Madeline Claire de Berrié, has made the most of the ornate yet intimate interior of Emmanuel College Chapel, designed by Christopher Wren and built during the same period the operas were written. There are bouquets of flowers across the room, and ivy stretching along the chairs of the orchestra into the audience, and onto the players. The greenery, the flowers and the glossy satin of La Paix’s (Tiffany Charnley) dress, seem to play on an Edenic theme, a favourite of Charpentier.

The plot of both operas centres around this triumph of the arts and beauty, glorifying the peace in the reign of Louis XIV. Charpentier’s Les Arts Florissants, ‘the flourishing Arts’, has the calm lifestyle of the personified Arts – of Music, Architecture, Painting and Poetry respectively – disrupted by the arrival of Discord. Discord (Tom Butler) faces off with Peace (Tiffany Charnley) in the centre of the stage, casually ripping up her carefully fashioned creation, until he is thrown back out of Eden at the end of the play. The Prologue to Céphale et Procris is similarly drawn on depictions of the glory of God’s nature, and both operas emphasise the role of Louis XIV’s presence in maintaining the peace.

If the plots are simple, the skilful blend of orchestra, dancing, acting and opera allows for more complexity. Louisa, who plays Architecture, described the necessity of ‘really understanding what you’re singing’, as the Early Modern French language of the operas requires the singers to “convey meaning through acting”. Tiffany Charnley (Peace) gave a nuanced performance when alone onstage during rehearsal, and Tom Butler (Discord) made full use of the stage in front of the audience, creating a theatrical sense of menace. Only a small tree separates both the audience and some of the singers from the orchestra – perhaps another echo of the blurring of boundaries through the ubiquitous ivy. This can be seen to reflect Director Madeline Claire de Berrié’s dedication to historical accuracy, as Charpentier scored and performed his own operas, much like Louis XIV liked to be involved in performance.

A further dedication to historical accuracy lies in the music, which uses traditional instruments rarely used outside of Baroque performance, like the Baroque violin and flute. Louisa emphasised how this production has brought many classical instrumentalists and singers together from different parts of Cambridge and the university, such as from several different college choirs. Although there is balletic dance involved at points during the performance, there are some static moments, which allows the focus to be drawn back to the orchestra. Charpentier called his piece a ‘musical idyll’, and certainly the softly echoing verses of the chorus, as well as some of the more dramatic constructions, let me close my eyes and get lost in the beautiful music.

The rehearsal suggests that the performance today and Saturday will be excellent – and the players urge everyone to come, even if they haven’t had much (or any!) experience with opera before. As Tiffany (Peace) says, “at the end of the day, you’re still telling a story”.