“The Morphing Beast,” presented by the Boston Camerata on June 15 at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall as part of the Boston Early Music Festival, featured The Roman de Fauvel, a satirical allegory on the last decades of the reign of Philip IV “the Fair” of France (1285-1314), his sons Louis X (1315-16) and Philip V (1317-22). The horse Fauvel’s name is an acrostic of the vices flaterie, avarice, vilanie, variété (inconstancy), envie, and lacheté (cowardice). His name also means “veil of falsity.” As to the story, Fauvel is elevated from the stable to the throne by the Goddess Fortuna. When he seeks her hand in marriage, she rejects him and palms him off on Vain Glory. Their union produces new Fauvel, and Fortune denounces him as a harbinger of the Antichrist.
The Roman, in rhymed octosyllabic couplets in Old French, exists in a shorter and a longer version, but only one manuscript, now in the French National Library in Paris, survives of the longer version containing musical and literary interpolations. The musical numbers range from short bits of chant and pseudo-chant (in Latin) to extended unaccompanied songs and polyphonic motets in both French and Latin. In addition, wonderfully vivid illustrations, particularly of the wedding feast of Fauvel and Vain Glory with the accompanying charivari and Tournament of the Virtues and Vices, are the glory of this large book.
Much of the satire and allegory in this longer version of the Roman refer to the rise and fall of the king’s chamberlain, Enguerran de Marigny. After the death of Philip IV in 1314, Marigny was accused of financial mismanagement, then necromancy, convicted, and finally hanged in April 1315. Other political events are mentioned, such as the suppression of the Templars on charges of sexual and religious transgressions and charges of adultery against the daughters-in-law of Philip IV. The musical interpolations also include motets on the broader theme of admonition to royalty.
Some years ago, the Boston Camerata’s founder and then director Joel Cohen and several French collaborators made a performing version of the Roman and produced a video that was shown on French TV and at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Last year the Camerata updated the production with the addition of manuscript illuminations to be projected in coordination with the music and the texts. As speaker, Cohen juxtaposed short excerpts from the French text with a witty -— and cleverly rhymed — English translation that provided narrative continuity. Musical selections from Book I of the two-part Roman comment on the fickleness of Fortune and the despicable behavior of Fauvel, advise listeners to stay away from taverns, and admonish the young king Louis X to follow the example of his saintly namesake. The second part of the narrative depicts Fauvel’s failed courtship of Fortune, who awards him Vain Glory as a bride. The third part reaches its climax with the marriage of Fauvel and the upending of social norms. Finally, the people pray to the Virgin for deliverance from Fauvel’s crimes.
The cast of Wednesday’s performance included five participants from the Camerata’s 1995 CD of the Roman: soprano (and Artistic Director) Anne Azéma in the role of Fortune; Joel Cohen as narrator, luthenist, and percussionist; Michael Collver, countertenor, as Fauvel, who also played the cornetto, along with Steven Lundahl, sackbut, slide trumpet, and recorders; and Shira Kammen, fiddle, rebec, and harp. They were joined by tenor Michael Barrett impersonating a female Vain Glory. All three singers showed an unfailing sense of style along with incisive diction and clear intonation, and all three gamely participated in a bit of broad miming as required. The instruments provided color and variety, and the charivari was truly terrifying. If, as Joel Cohen suggested in his program note, the theater of the original Fauvel was that of the mind rather than a public proscenium, the Camerata’s adaptation of the Roman allowed us to participate in its spirit, however vicariously, and to enjoy fine performances of some gems of Late Medieval poetry and music.
By way of a curtain raiser to the Roman de Fauvel, an assemblage of twelfth- and thirteenth-century songs and poems on animal topics under the heading Le Bestiaire d’Amour was performed by Azéma, with Shira Kammen on vielle and harp. A medieval bestiary was a compendium of beasts, real and mythical, that not only described their natural history but also their symbolic meaning within the Christian moral order. Recited excerpts from the twelfth-century bestiary of Philippe de Thaon described the mermaid and her seductive song, and a strange beast called a monosceros, with antlers on his head and the body of a goat. Moral lessons were drawn from the foolishness of a stag and a fox in fables by Marie de France, recited to vielle accompaniment and followed by an instrumental “Dance of the Fox.” A pastoral refrain song about a nightingale followed, sung to harp accompaniment. The thirteenth-century trouvère Thibaut de Champagne lamented that, like the unicorn, he would die in the lap of his lady. With her bright, clear voice and convincing diction, Azéma brought these texts and melodies to a new life beyond mere antiquarian curiosity.