It is unlikely that a modern audience knows very much about Scylla without Charybdis—the mythological equivalent of “a-rock-and-a-hard place.” In the Straits of Messina between Sicily and the Italian Peninsula, the legendary Charybdis—once a sea monster—was a treacherous whirlpool near to the hazardous rock formation that once was the water nymph Scylla. How she got there is the subject of this opera.
The only opera composed by France’s foremost violinist of the period, Jean-Marie Leclair (1697–1764), Scylla et Glaucus tells the story of the unanticipated love triangle that develops when Glaucus seeks to win the affection of the sea nymph Scylla by enlisting the powers of the sorceress Circe. The hapless Glaucus, however, discovers that Circe herself has feelings for him and instead of facilitating his love for Scylla, she conjures up the means to poison her perceived rival. She then transforms Scylla into a rock surrounded by monsters near the gulf of Charybdis where sailors have plunged to their deaths ever since, becoming, in Circe’s words, “the terror of the seas.”
Born in Lyons, Leclair divided his early career between his talents as a violinist and dancer, working as a ballet-master and ballet composer while studying violin in Turin in the 1720s. His op. 1 publication of violin sonatas received praise both for their challenge and their innovation, and his performances of his sonatas and concertos at the Concert Spirituel in Paris were received enthusiastically. However, edged out by rivalry with Pierre Guignon, he traveled to London and Kassel, Germany, where he performed at court with the celebrated Italian violinist, Pietro Locatelli (1695–1764). The two were considered avatars of the French and Italian styles of playing—Leclair for his rhythmic freedom and Locatelli for his technical gymnastics—though the influences of Locatelli are seen in Leclair’s violin sonatas from op. 5 on.
In 1733 Leclair was appointed ordinaire de la musique du roi by Louis XV, but resigned four years later when he tangled again with Guignon over leadership of the king’s orchestra. He then went to the Netherlands, invited by Anne, Princess of Orange, the daughter of George II of England and harpsichord pupil of Handel. He divided his time there between the court and The Hague, where he served a wealthy commoner as maestro di cappella for his twenty musicians. He returned to Paris in semi-retirement, having published nine highly influential volumes of violin sonatas and chamber music and six concertos. At age 50, he optimistically announced in the dedication of his first opera, Scylla et Glaucus, which premiered at the Académie Royale de Musique on October 4, 1746: “Today I enter upon a new career.” But sadly, after eighteen poorly received performances in two months, his operatic career began and ended with this work.
Leclair separated from his second wife about 1758 and bought a small house in a dangerous part of Paris. There he was found murdered in 1764. The investigation yielded three suspects: the gardener, an estranged nephew, and his estranged wife. Musicologist Neal Zaslaw writes, “The murder is often said to be shrouded in mystery, but the evidence (in the French Archives Nationales) is so clearly against the nephew, who was a violinist…that the only remaining mystery is that he was never brought to trial.”
The plot of the opera comes from Books XIII and XIV of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, directly following upon his account of the brutal murder of Acis by the Cyclops Polyphemus, the topic of the Handel’s serenata that PBO staged in January. Ovid’s Glaucus is a merman who describes himself thus: “Then I saw, for the first time, this dark green beard, my hair that sweeps the wide sea [hair that hid his shoulders and covered his back], these giant shoulders and dusky arms, these legs that curve below into a fish’s fins.” Not surprisingly (though one would assume that a sea nymph would have encountered such creatures before), “As [Glaucus] spoke these words, looking to say more, Scylla abandoned him.”
The Prologue to the opera is a pageant honoring Venus, goddess of love, and her son Cupid overcoming the warriors of Mars, god of war, clearly aimed at an audience of one: King Louis XV: “Learn from a King attended by glory, how to vanquish, how to reign over hearts, and how to determine the destiny of the world.” Venus’s descent from a cloud is the first of two dei ex machina in the opera, foreshadowing the descent of Circe in Act III.
In the verdant landscape of Act I, Glaucus enters after a whole scene of lovely pastoral music, a favorite of the French court, in which shepherds and woodland creatures attempt to soften Scylla’s hardened heart, hoping she will choose one of their kind. The obscure librettist, one Monsieur d’Albaret, minimizes Ovid’s Beauty-and-the-Beast element by emphasizing that it is Scylla’s fierce independent spirit—and not the sea-god Glaucus’s hideous appearance—that causes her initially to reject him.
In Act II, Circe also complains of failed love affairs, but she has turned those lovers into monsters that now decorate her palace grounds. Her supernatural powers apparently give her advance notice of the arrival of Glaucus, on whom she already confesses her amorous designs. When he unwittingly solicits her aid in his pursuit of Scylla, Circe posits herself as a worthier candidate for his affections. She then summons her ministers to beguile him further with songs and dances on her behalf. As he begins to succumb to this seduction, Licas. the impatient wing-man of Glaucus, redirects his attention to Scylla. Thus spurned, Circe’s amorous intentions turn to thoughts of vengeance, egged on by her sycophantic ministers.
At the seashore in Act III, Scylla rues her earlier rejection of Glaucus, at the same time complaining that he has now abandoned her. Word has evidently reached her of Circe’s attempted seduction, and only after considerable persuasion does Glaucus assure Scylla that he loves only her; she eventually confesses that the feeling is mutual. General rejoicing and the invocation of Venus follow, recalling the music and dance of the Prologue, but when the cloud machine reappears, it holds not the anticipated Venus, but a decidedly vengeful and angry Circe, who ends the act with a solo scena of furious intensity.
The inevitable confrontation of Glaucus and Circe in Act IV takes place on the barren volcanic landscape surrounding Sicily’s Mount Etna. Circe confronts him with a choice: her hatred or her love. In either event, she has resolved to kill her rival Scylla. He relents, agreeing to give in to her demands, but privately hopes to rescue his love. Caught in the midst of departure and prevented by the sorceress from explaining why, Glaucus is berated by Scylla for infidelity and abandonment. Appearing to surrender to his pleading and Scylla’s gratitude, Circe surprisingly dismisses the happy couple with a wholly disingenuous concession. Once out of their presence, however, she unleashes her fury, and as Mt. Etna spews flames, she impatiently invokes the demons of the underworld to wreak havoc. They appear in an infernal divertissement that climaxes with the presentation of a poisonous herb by Hecate, goddess of witchcraft.
Act V is a textbook coup de théâtre. Scylla and Glaucus celebrate their love in the midst of a fete around a fountain occasioned by the deliverance of Sicily from the Cyclops, and recount the perils they have escaped. Scylla, however (and justifiably, as it turns out), still has presentiments of Circe’s “fatal affections.” In a bookend to the Prologue, the Sicilians join in choruses and dances in celebration of Cupid, culminating in the dance of a frenetic tambourin. Meanwhile, Circe presumably poisons the fountain with Hecate’s toxic herbs. Sentimentally returning to the fountain where they first met, Scylla and Glaucus enjoy a brief moment before Scylla–upon seeing her reflection–is seized by hideous monsters and apparently succumbs. She briefly revives to Glaucus’s anguished cries and, to his momentary relief, exits. There’s no happy ending in sight, however. Circe reappears (sans cloud machine) and, in a final act of cruelty, transports Glaucus to the Straits of Messina where he sees a rock representing a Scylla surrounded by monsters, opposite the gulf of Charybdis. Glaucus exits heartbroken, and Circe gloats on this “monument to my rage” for the “misfortune of the universe.”
As befits the French tragédie en musique, Scylla et Glaucus is replete with choruses, special effects, and a rich palette of orchestral color. Because Leclair was underwritten by the deep pockets of the French aristocracy, there was a large cast of resident singers, dancers, orchestral musicians and the latest in stage machinery and scenic designs at his disposal. Written just five years after Handel gave up on writing operas in London, it differs from the more familiar Italian opera seria (serious opera) in dramatic and musical structure.
While Italian recitative (recitativo secco and accompagnato) is declaimed over a sustained bass note in the free rhythm of speech, the dialogue of the French récit is subject to a rhythmic pulse that shifts in accordance to the prosody of the text. This reflects the scrupulous attention also paid to poetic meter found in the alexandrines of 17th century French playwrights such as Racine and Corneille. The rhythmic récit also facilitates a seamless transition into solo airs and ariettes and accommodates the sudden outbursts of instrumental accompaniment that accompany the mercurial mood swings of Circe.
The French air differs from its Italian contemporary aria in its dramatic immediacy. The singer most often transitions from the récit without an introductory orchestral ritornello and proceeds through the text without repetition and elaboration of single words or phrases. Leclair also abstains from the Italian convention of the da capo (ABA) aria, in which the first sentence of text is repeated to accommodate the singer’s improvised ornamentation. However, he does give Glaucus a fully Italianate aria—complete with opening ritornello, florid passagework, and truncated da capo—in his final paean to love in Act V.
The opera reflects Leclair’s brilliant career as a violinist and the influence of Locatelli. The score abounds with the kind of “violinistic” writing found in his nine published volumes of violin sonatas, including double- and triple-stops, cross-string arpeggios (ondeggiando) and sweeping rapid scales (tirate). His choruses are frequently animated by flights of violin passagework soaring above the mostly chordal (homophonic) writing for the voices.
The rich variety of dances in Scylla reflect Leclair’s early career as a dancer and provides a catalog of French Baroque court dance. By this time, they had disseminated throughout Europe, and appear in suites by Bach, Handel, and Telemann, and countless others. In addition to characteristic “airs” for the Sylvans and Demons, the sarabande, gavotte, passacaille, tambourin, forlane, minuet, gigue, passepied, and march are all danced in the opera.
The instrumentation is a comprehensive roster of the late Baroque orchestra: transverse flutes, oboes, bassoons, trumpets, timpani, and strings divided into five parts: first and second violins, first and second violas (called haute-contre and taille de violon) and cello/bass as well as harpsichord and theorbo (archlute). Only horns are missing. Oboes, flutes, and the domesticated rustic bagpipe known as the musette, all have featured solos or accompanimental obbligatos, and the oboes as frequently double the violin parts in the absence of separate oboe lines.
Leclair shares with his contemporary Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) a love of orchestral effects and colorful writing for the woodwinds and brass, a French penchant for sonority that begins at the court of Louis XIV and continues with the works of Berlioz, Debussy, and Messaien. From the “great commotion” of the descent of Venus in the Prologue, scored for trumpets and timpani juxtaposed with oboes, flutes, and bassoons to the baying of the monsters and pounding surf that surround the rock of Scylla in the final scene, Leclair uses the whole instrumentation for sonic effect as well as melodic musical expression.
Scylla et Glaucus and the Revenge of Venus
D’Albaret’s libretto inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses examines the natures of love, adoration and revenge. The Prologue opens with a ceremony honoring Venus, but when the Propétides (a cult renouncing her divinity) invade and attempt to destroy the statue of Venus, the goddess descends and transforms them into stone. At the end of the Prologue, Venus sends her son, Amour, to Sicily to punish Scylla, a nymph who rejects love, preferring the chaste path associated with the goddess Diana.
The theme of this Prologue resonates throughout the opera. In Act I Amour begins to have his effect on Scylla as she struggles with her feelings towards Glaucus, almost letting her guard down. After a troubled courtship they are about to celebrate their love in Act V when, the proud Scylla, is punished by suffering metamorphosis into a rock, just as the Propétides were turned to stone in the Prologue.
Each character’s struggle with love ends in tragedy. Glaucus, in Act I when Scylla is still rejecting his attentions, chooses Circe over Venus to appeal for help to win Scylla’s heart. Was this his sin against Venus, believing Circe was more powerful than Venus? In Act II Circe falls in love with Glaucus, and it is the jealous Circe who brings about Scylla’s fatal transformation into a stone, leaving Glaucus bereft of love altogether. Did the librettist mean to suggest Venus was behind Circe’s actions, considering her treatment of the Propétides in the Prologue? Circe certainly did not worship Venus – was Venus using her as a tool to exact her revenge on Scylla as well as demonstrating her own dominance over Circe?
In our production, by triple casting the same singer as Venus, Temire (Scylla’s dryad companion), and Dorine (Circe’s handservant), the story of Venus’s role in bringing about this tragedy will be very clear. The recitatives of Temire and Dorine will subsequently have a double meaning that references the court life at the time of Leclair. In this way, the opera comes full circle with the audience seeing the darker side of Venus first introduced in the prologue, resulting in a conclusion of storms, destruction, and hopeless loss of love for Scylla, Glaucus, and Circé as well. At the last note of the orchestra, Venus claims a dark victory.
Leclair was chastised for this unhappy ending and some scholars suggest this was the reason for the opera dropping into obscurity. In Neal Zaslaw’s A Case Study (1992), he states Leclair was aware of the Thomas Corneille 1675 tragicomedy, Circé, staged with dance and music. Leclair was criticized for having a tragic end to his tragic opera, leaving the audience in crisis instead of relieved by a manufactured happy ending more typical of his day. According to Zaslaw’s research “(Leclair) commented that Corneille invented the only possible happy resolution to the myth and that he (Leclair) was practically required to go with the ending he chose rather than copy Corneille.”
Background research forming the design for today
Premiered in October of 1746, Jean Marie Leclair’s Scylla et Glaucus was composed in the older French tradition with a prologue and five acts. Leclair, considered a “master of classical forms,” created a tragedie lyrique with the integrity of principles laid down by Lully and Rameau, instead of going with the much simpler Italian style gaining popularity in France at the time. Leclair’s music was thus not perceived as being innovative; in fact, the tragedie lyrique itself was practically abandoned by this time.
According to musicologist Neal Zaslaw, musicians were discussing the merits of performing 17th-century operas as the composers originally intended… not so different from today’s early music movement. In costume design, reforms were also looking back and using designs from earlier periods in history when appropriate. The fashionable silhouette of court dress so popular on the 18th-century stage up to the middle decades was being challenged.
In keeping with the “return to earlier forms” reflecting the time and place of the character, I have been working with our costume designer, Marie Anne Chiment, to use a more 17th-century silhouette. As examples, I sent her designs of Henri de Gissey who created the costumes for the Néréïdes in Le Ballet de la Nuit (1653). Using Gissey as her inspiration, she created the Demons of Circé and the Divinities of the Sea as well as the main characters’ costumes with the fantasy of the 17th-century ballet. The characters of Scylla et Glaucus are from nature and not the court, so we dispensed with wide hoops and panniers.
In working with Pierre Dupouey, our designer for video projections and lighting, we chose paintings of Hubert Robert, the French artist known for his landscapes and subjects of ancient ruins, as a basis for the video projections. (Although Robert is later than the premiere date of the opera, his vision is in harmony with the natural elements we were looking for. The past is prologue and the present always contains a wave of what is to come.) Using the same painter many times throughout gives consistency to the set design. However, when the libretto calls for the seaside, volcano eruptions and the moon crashing to the earth, Dupouey has created these illusions using his own photography and video. In addition to Hubert Robert’s paintings, Dupouey borrowed from other more or less contemporary painters from Leclair. The volcano painting is by François Diday and the view of Sicily in Act III is partly from Albert Marquet. The base of the skies comes from other painters as famous as Le Lorrain or Poussin and even Turner. Painting connoisseurs will recognize the borrowings. Because our production will be seen in two very different theaters, Dupouey cleverly worked for a solution combining projected backdrops and video effects within the forced perspective of a stage dressed with painted columns. In Versailles, framing the stage will be additional hard set pieces from the talented set designer, Antoine Fontaine.
Stage movement and choreography
There is very little published research on the original choreography. What we do know is the name of the choreographer, Jean-Denis Dupré (younger brother of Louis Dupré), and the solo dancers: Camargo, the brothers David and François Dumoulin, as well as a new dancer, Mlle. Sauvage. From the eighth performance on, a ballet-pantomime then in vogue, Un Jardinier et une Jardinière, was added at the end of the tragedy, danced by Mlle. Dallemant and M. Pitro. This allowed the audience to leave the theater on a happier note.
I find it interesting that Leclair’s stage debut was as a young dancer; at age nineteen in 1716, he married Marie-Rose Casthanie, a ballerina of the Lyon Opera. In 1722 he joined the Teatro Regio of Turin as premier danseur and ballet master. Many maîtres de ballet (choreographers) in the 17th, 18th and even 19th centuries were both dancers and violinists (not unlike the young Lully). As a ballet master, it is plausible he would have been in charge of choreographing dances for the opera. Because of his deep ties to dance, I looked for clues in the music that would reveal dance, movement, and character symbolism. Responding to these musical gestures adds subtlety to the dances and fleshes out the characters of the drama. No descriptions of the dances have been left to us from the original performances, although the Mercure de France does tell us Scylla plunged into the sea at the end of the opera rather than dying on the bank as is written in the score. Therefore, I based my creation on the fundamental conventions in dance and stage theory of the period. Additionally, I wanted to pay homage to the surviving dance notation of a passacaille from Scylla (music by Theobaldo di Gatti) printed in the 1704 choreographic collection of Guillaume-Louis Pecour. This dance notation is a solo for Mlle. Subligny and I have arranged it for four women playing the Ministers of Circe. (Gatti’s Scylla is focused on her love for Dardanus, a completely different story, but she does take her own life at the end of the opera…another tragic ending without redemption.). To highlight the baroque choreographic style, I have occasionally drawn movement quotations from Feuillet as well as Pecour, and I adapted a section of Feuillet’s Ballet de Neuf Danseurs for the large demon dances in Act IV.
The dance music of Leclair from this opera may have been included in later ballets on the same subject created independently of the opera, a practice not uncommon for the time. M. Blache, student of Duport and one of the main dancing masters at Le Grand Théâtre de Lyon, created his own ballet, also called Scylla et Glaucus. Its libretto from the 1760’s is in the Arsenal library in Paris, but there is no accompanying music score. With Leclair being a native of Lyon, his dance music may be in this ballet. The research remains to be done. (M. Blache is mentioned by Carlo Blasis as a talented dancing master in his 1847 memoire, Notes Upon Dancing: Historical and Practical. It is possible Leclair’s music, like Rameau’s, was used in 19th century ballet exercises and dance suites devised by ballet teachers of the period. Perhaps our current performances of Scylla et Glaucus will inspire more research into the music of Leclair in the ballet repertoire.)
In conclusion, it has been an honor to revisit this opera which I first choreographed in 1986 at the Opera de Lyon with conductor John Eliot Gardiner and stage director Philippe Lenaël. At my invitation, members of Ris et Danceries joined The New York Baroque Dance Company in that modern day premiere, which was awarded Le Prix Claude Rostand (the critics’ prize for the best spectacle lyrique of the year). For this new production, both I and the NYBDC are most grateful to our producers, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale and the Centre de musique baroque de Versailles.
Q. What inspired your costume designs for Scylla?
A. I was intrigued with how the opera takes us on a journey through four Elements:
- The Prologue takes place up on Mt. Olympus and Venus descends from clouds. This is the Element of Air.
- Act I brings us to the edge of the forest and the country-side populated by shepherds, animals and even a singing tree! This represents the Element of Earth.
- Act III finds sea creatures dancing at the edge of the sea, or the Element of Water.
- Act IV brings the action to an erupting volcano on Mt. Etna and therefore we complete the 4 Elements with Fire.
I use these 4 Classical Elements to help me tell the story visually, through my choices of shape, color and texture for each costume.