A review of La Délivrance de Renaud presented by Dr Inge van Rij (New Zealand School of Music, Victoria University of New Zealand) at the book launch on the 23rd of May 2011:
La Délivrance de Renaud, edited by Greer Garden, is truly a book worthy of its subject – the spectacular court ballet of the same name that took place in 1617 at the court of King Louis the Thirteenth of France. Like the book, these ballets were typically sumptuous affairs, combining poetry, song, dance, and astonishingly elaborate costumes and scenery; the King and his courtiers actively took part in the dance themselves, in what Charles Downey, one of the contributors to the volume, describes as ‘a sort of slumber party of royal proportions’. Unlike any slumber parties I’m familiar with, however, the ballets de cour were heavily laden with political symbolism; they staged and literally choreographed relationships – real or ideal – between their protagonists; dance was seen as a form of military training for the noble participants, modelling the coordination, strategizing and discipline required in combat; La Délivrance de Renaud is one of the most extravagant as well as one of the most politically significant ballets of the period, and the story of the seduction of the crusader Renaud by the enchantress Armide, and his subsequent deliverance and return to duty, was chosen by the young King Louis Treize himself for a quite specific allegorical purpose.
The ballets de cour (or court ballets) of the late Renaissance and Baroque were one-off occasions – an orgy of Royal symbolism and spectacle where lengthy preparations and rehearsals culminated in just a single enactment on a single day. In this respect they’re not altogether dissimilar to the recent British royal wedding. In 1617, of course, there was no youtube to enable participants and spectators alike to relive their memories of the special royal event; but it was fairly common for some aspects of a ballet de cour to be recorded in written form, for a similar purpose. La Delivrance de Rénaud is in fact the best documented of any court entertainment of the period, for several crucial sources survive: in particular, we have a very detailed livret – a book recording aspects of the scenario and staging – which in this case has full descriptions and beautiful illustrations of the wonderfully elaborate costumes of the dancers (one of which appears on the cover). The book we’re launching today contains a complete facsimile of the entire livret, as well as an English translation, making it widely available to scholars of this fascinating repertoire for the first time. Moreover, the dance music for La Délivrance de Renaud also survives, in another source; and this, too, is reproduced in the book, in the form of a modern edition which draws on scholarly research to complete the missing parts according to seventeenth-century principles.
In addition to making these valuable primary sources available to performers and scholars, the book La Délivrance de Renaud also comprises a number of essays. The essays are grouped into five sections, each illuminating a different aspect of the ballet and, indeed, reflecting the way in which the ballet itself brings together different frameworks. Thus separate sections deal with the historical context of the work; the sources of inspiration for the Renaud story, including Tasso; the vocal music and instrumental ensemble; the scenography and costumes; and the dance and its music. Each of these sections comprises essays by authors who are specialists in their respective fields: Peter Walls, a long-time colleague of Greer Garden at Victoria University, and a leading authority on courtly entertainments and performance practice, contributed chapters on the historical context, the performance practice of the early ballet de cour, and on the sources for the dance music; Charles T. Downey, a specialist on French Baroque music and authority on narratives derived from Tasso, led the editing of the musical edition, as well as supplying chapters on the noble participants of the ballet, and on the sources of the narrative; Georgie Durosoir of the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versaille contributed chapters on the adaptation of Tasso’s text, on the composition of the ballets, and on the mysterious male dancer who took on the role of Renaud’s enchantress, Armide; Anne Surgers, an authority on Baroque scenography, supplied a detailed study of the staging of the ballet; and Kate Van Orden a specialist on music in early modern France based at the University of California Berkeley contributed a study of the political ramifications of the dance.
Greer Garden herself authored an essay on the contradictions in the sources for La Délivrance de Renaud, leading to a significant revision of the widely accepted allegorical interpretation of the narrative; she also contributed an essay on an influential earlier treatment of the Rinaldo story; and, reflecting her own background as both singer and scholar of French Baroque repertoire, she supplied a study of the vocal music, singers and singing in La Délivrance de Renaud. Greer Garden is also the primary editor for the volume, which I imagine must sometimes have taken on the character of a choreographed Crusade in its own right, with the need to coordinate authors across three different continents; moreover, these authors write in their own languages – French or English. Greer’s own preface to the edition appears in both languages – symbolically, since she, as many of us know, is equally at home in France and in New Zealand. The ease with which Greer moves between these languages and cultures, however, should not blind us to the inevitable challenges posed for the scholar conducting such research. Elizabeth Hudson has already mentioned the time that goes into producing a book of this kind; having stayed in the same accommodation as Greer during my own research trips to Paris, I can add to that a personal appreciation of the hardships that come with this particular crusade – including months of three-minute showers in accommodation with plumbing that can only be described as ‘Baroque’; and I’d also like to express my admiration for the grace with which Greer has negotiated the several hundred years of formidable library bureaucracy required to reclaim this ‘holy land’ of primary materials available in Paris.
The completion of any book will often feel like a form of deliverance in its own right; but in this case the finished document is as seductive as Armide herself and is sure to lure in many readers. Certainly the book contain a wealth of information for the specialist interested in this period, presenting for the first time the most complete record of ANY court entertainment of the era, and proposing new interpretations of this material; but Greer and the other authors have also accomplished that rare feat of catering simultaneously to the more general reader, by providing background information that really brings this 17th-century event alive in the present. For example, in reading descriptions of the costumes, illustrated in the sumptuous facsimile of the livret, we discover how the ‘Demon of Gamesters’ was kitted out with dice for buttons, a ruff of playing cards, and a belt of tennis racquets, not to mention an enchantingly bizarre hat resembling a chessboard – an ensemble that, it struck me, was fully worthy of certain Princesses at a more recent Royal festivity. Elsewhere we learn how the young King Louis Treize, like a seventeenth-century Prince Harry, diverted himself during the long dance rehearsals by hiding and throwing water down on people beneath him as they entered the palace. Details like these help us to bridge the centuries that separate 1617 from our own enduring fascination with royal pageantry and symbolism, and with the very human beings behind the spectacle. Please join me now in congratulating Greer Garden, as well as Peter Walls and her other collaborators, in making such an important contribution to our understanding of this repertoire, in sharing with us this literally enchanting material, and in bringing us La Déliverance de Renaud.