Charpentier's "Orpheus" & Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis"

Jul 23, 2017

Tenor Paul Agnew sings the title role in Charpentier's gripping "Orpheus," and legendary conductor Robert Shaw leads Beethoven's epic choral journey, the "Missa Solemnis."

Charpentier: The Descent of Orpheus into the Underworld

Paul Agnew: Orphée
Sophie Daneman: Euridice 
Monique Zantetti: Proserpine
Patricia Petibon: Daphné / Énone
Fernand Bernadi: Pluton
Jean-François Gardiel: Apollon / Titye
Katalin Károlyi: Aréthuze
Steve Dugardin: Ixion
François Piolino: Tantale

Les Arts Florissants
William Christie, conductor

As the son of the god Apollo and the muse Calliope, legend has it that Orpheus was naturally gifted with otherworldly abilities, the most striking of which was his singing voice. All of his accomplishments - convincing the gods to let him travel to the Underworld to retrieve Eurydice; calming the Furies which torment the souls of the damned in the Underworld; convincing Hades and Persephone to let him take Eurydice back up to the land of the living (on the condition that he not lay eyes upon her) -  all those accomplishments stem from the power of Orpheus' singing. And it's this that makes the Orpheus story a perennial favorite for opera.

Charpentier's Orpheus is different that most settings of the story. Yes, the music is charming and in every way a suitable conduit for the story. But, it is also incomplete. The famous climax - when Orpheus against his oath turns to check if Eurydice is indeed following him from the Underworld back to the world of the living, and thereby loses her forever - is missing. Perhaps Charpentier meant to write a finale and never got around to it, or perhaps the final music has been lost to history. Or he might simply not have wanted to include the ending. Whatever the case may be, Charpentier's Orpheus ends before one might expect, in a deus ex machina-esque happy ending, making this take on the classic tale unique.

Read a side-by-side translated libretto of the opera, courtesy of the Boston Early Music Festival.

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Beethoven, Missa solemnis in D major, Op. 123

Sylvia McNair, soprano
Janice Taylor, mezzo-soprano
John Aler, tenor
Tom Krause, baritone

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus
Robert Shaw, conductor

When the words "Beethoven" and "choral" are paired, it is most frequently in reference to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. But the Choral Symphony does not stand alone. Roughly at the same time as Beethoven was writing it, he was also composing another colossal choral masterpiece: The Missa Solemnis. That Beethoven was almost entirely deaf when he composed both works seems to have been little hindrance: well over an hour in length, the Missa Solemnis is a stunning example of choral writing, and is widely considered to be both one of the most difficult and one of the most rewarding works for choir. 

Read more about the Missa Solemnis from the San Francisco Symphony.

Read more about Robert Shaw and his conducting of the Missa from the New York Times.