Le Bourgeois, cont’d: Lully’s theatricality

June 11th, 2010 § 0 comments

The standard published text of the play opens with the following stage direction (my translation):

The overture is played by a large ensemble of instruments; at center stage, a pupil of the Music Master is seen, composing at a table an air that the Bourgeois has commissioned for a serenade.

What we see in the Lazar/Dumestre production, after the overture, is a white-faced figure wielding a quill over a portable writing desk strapped in front of him, singing, humming, and writing to the accompaniment of a theorbo in the pit. The singer who will sing the song later in the scene enters, listens, approaches, and flirts with him as he finishes the song. It’s an enchanting opening, and I particularly admired the way the Lully air had been adapted to give an impression of being composed on the spot. Well, as it turns out, that was Lully’s doing. Here’s how it looks in the facsimile 1690 Philidor score:

The portable desk, the flirting, and so on, are embellishments, apparently, but they seem to flow as seamlessly from the score as the theorbist’s realization of the unfigured bass.

It takes nothing away from Vincent Dumestre and Le Poème Harmonique to observe that the understanding of Lully as a theatrical composer has evolved tremendously in recent years; without William Christie, Jordi Savall, Marc Minkowski and others working in French baroque opera, not to mention movies like Tous les matins du monde and Le roi danse, a production like this would hardly have been conceivable. I first heard Lully’s music for the Bourgeois in the early eighties, and though it was attractive enough, it had little of the rhythmic verve and spontaneity that later groups—and none more than Dumestre’s—have learned to give it. The dances were stately, “comic” numbers sounded unfunny as only opera singers can make them, and there was nary a line of spoken dialogue in the whole recording. It was hard to imagine what it all had to do with Molière.*

And that’s pretty much how it was regarded for several centuries, despite periodic attempts at revival. From now on, anyone attempting a “straight” production of this play is going to have to anticipate being asked “but where’s the music?”

*addendum: This was almost certainly the 1973 recording with Gustav Leonhardt directing La Petite Bande, an ensemble formed for the express purpose of recording this music. Listening to it again (or excerpts from the CD, which I assume was just a re-issue of the LP), I have to say it holds up pretty well. But this opening number, not at all. It’s so obviously not a real staging, but a half-hearted “concert” impression of one, that it has no impact either dramatically or musically. No wonder I forgot it was even there. Still, Leonhardt and La Petite Bande must be given credit for beginning the modern revival of this score.

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