Jean-Baptiste Lully was a 17th-century French music bully. A dancer, composer and instrumentalist, Lully fiercely rose to the top of Louis XIV’s artistic administration and then knocked out all his rivals. He got permission from the king to use the Palais Royal theater free of charge, which meant he got to kick out the current theater company. To cover all his bases, he placed a ban on any other composer using dancers in their productions or using more than two voices, and he filed a lawsuit claiming someone had tried to poison him—you know, just in case.
Matthew Dirst, Ars Lyrica’s artistic director, describes Lully as nothing less than a “political animal.” Dirst conducts Ars Lyrica’s upcoming November 20 concert, Homage to the Sun King, which celebrates the 300th anniversary of Louis XIV’s death.
For a king who vigorously supported the arts, it’s no wonder there are plenty of composers to pick from despite Lully’s efforts. On the program is a suite from Lully’s opera Armide, as well as work from two of Lully’s later rivals for reputation, Jean-Philippe Rameau and Marc-Antoine Charpentier.
“It’s work that doesn’t get much air time in these times—pieces like the Charpentier chamber opera that otherwise wouldn’t see the light of day in Houston,” Dirst remarks. “It’s too specialized. You can’t just order up your scores for Gounod’s Faust and everybody understands what it is.”
Charpentier’s Les arts florissants is a fun 45-minute allegory (with characters named Music and Painting) that ends with paying homage to the king. But for such a light opera, it asks a lot of a company performing it today. You need the right instruments, the right costumes, as well as a cast that understands the intricacies of the period’s vocal ornamentation and embellishment.
And yes, you also need the right dancers. The New York Baroque Dance Company has it covered with Baroque dance aficionados adding a historical, visual component that’s rare.
“You see the steps of body carriage with, say, a rhythm of a gavotte,” Dirst says. “Understanding the rhythm of those dances is a multi-sense experience.”
The costumes add yet another element to this experience. Because the clothing involves a lot of fabric, the choreography tends to be small, elegant and low to the ground—no leaps or twirling arabesques here.
“The steps are created for people inside those kinds of costumes,” Dirst says. “Once you see a woman in the kind of get-up that would have been worn in Louis’ era, you can understand why those steps are so close to the ground.”
Lully might have clawed his way up the ladder, but as Louis XIV’s pet musician, he had the opportunity to produce a tremendous amount of music and dance that was only possible because a monarch cared about the arts.
“(Louis) was the cultural figure of his day, somebody who musicians trafficking this period simply can’t ignore.”
Friday, Nov 20. 7:30. $22-59. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby St. 713-315-2525. arslyricahouston.org