Photo: William Christie

Handel, Lully, Monteverdi, Purcell, Rameau and Telemann: Excerpts from stage works

Les Arts Florissants
William Christie

Soledad Cardoso, Céline Ricci & Orlanda Velez Isidro (sopranos)
Blandine Staskiewicz (mezzo-soprano)
Christophe Dumaux (countertenor)
Jeffrey Thompson (tenor)
Marc Mauillon & Gabriel Bermúdez (baritone)
João Fernandes (bass)

Stage presentation – Vincent Boussard
William Christie introduces up-and-coming vocalists. More than ever the musical establishment is finding the advantages of working with young talent. I have always believed that most of the great conductors seem happier, and consequently give greater performances, with youth orchestras than with their regular professional bands. Abbado, Ashkenazy, Haitink and Rattle all seem to enjoy the inspirational work that they can achieve when working with the likes of the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, the European Union Youth Orchestra and the National Youth Orchestra.
It is no surprise, then, that the period-instrument movement would follow suit. William Christie’s new project, “Le Jardin des Voix”, is a thoroughly laudable attempt to discover and hone new talent. Christie is presumably grooming singers who will become the mainstay of Les Arts Florissants’ pool of soloists. Thus, as the nine singers’ biographies testified, each of them already has their feet on the professional ladder. As to how many should by rights slip down a nearby snake to start all over again remains to be seen because, although hugely enjoyable in parts, the evening gave neither singers nor audience a real chance to judge.
The plus points first. The range of excerpts was cleverly conceived to encompass four major Baroque styles – English (Purcell), Italian (Monteverdi and Handel; the latter’s excerpts were from two of his Italian operas), French (Lully and Rameau) and German (Telemann).The lesser ability of some of the multinational singers to cope with one or more of the different languages did not worry me unduly, and much of the singing was charming. If only the nine had only sung!
Unfortunately, they had also been ’directed’ – by Vincent Boussard, the culprit named in the programme. M Boussard’s involvement almost negated the whole project. At no point were any of the singers allowed rest. They were on stage all the time – rarely on the seats behind the majestic players of Les Arts Florissants – and often asked to be stock-still standing in daft poses amongst the orchestra or on the ’acting’ arena at the front of the stage. Christie (who presumably was at the best compliant, at the worst complicit) joined in at times. In the most perverse piece of conductorial megalomania since John Eliot Gardiner conducted Beethoven’s Leonore at the Proms (in the Arena) – with him at the centre and all the singers inwards to him, the audience without a hope in hell in catching the words – Christie would turn round to conduct the singers, all with their backs to him, so it seemed he was either conducting in a vacuum or trying to get the audience to join in. Utterly bizarre.
For the Monteverdi, Christie (casually dressed in open-necked shirt) took a seat in the midst of his orchestra while the cast was forced into wholly unnecessary pantomimes to act out the madrigals (“mugging Monteverdi” was a phrase that sprang to mind). Our brave mezzo, Strasbourg-born Blandine Staskiewicz, had to do a character change for the first-half finale – to Lully’s Amadis when she took the role of Arcabonne: with her back to the audience she had to unpin her raised hair and let it flow. Little direction from Boussard about understanding the words and music and investing emotion from within.
The second half started with the most embarrassing bit of stage action I have witnessed in years. With eight of the nine singers hand-in-hand stumbling on stage and acting as if they were being buffeted by the wind, which Rameau more than adequately indicates in his orchestration, I wondered if there had been some rebellion from Portuguese soprano Orlanda Velez Isidro who remained aloof from her fellow singers. Even worse, Santa-Fe-born soprano Soledad Cardoso had changed her frock and in minutes she was lying face down on the floor. The dramatic point was lost. In any case – for an ensemble devoted to authentic styles – it seems contradictory to invest action with horrible over-the-top antics, which nowhere reflect the style of the original Baroque productions.
In the Handel excerpts excessive use was made of the podium. In ’Consolati, o bella’ (Handel’s Orlando) both Staskiewicz and Isidro joined Christie on his podium and there no was no apparent reason why Cardoso couldn’t join them as well – but she was left to stare up at them from the stage. In Tolomeo’s tormented ’L’empoi, sleale, indegno’ (Handel’s Giulio Cesare), countertenor Christophe Dumaux also spent much of the time on the podium back-to-back with Christie, and even grabbed him by the shoulder – literally clutching at Christie if, directorially, clutching at straws!
Telemann’s Don Quichotte was totally lost under the welter of stage directions, none of which made any sense, and served to confuse rather than clarify. Obviously Boussard’s sense of humour tops the reputed state of German humour: I’m sure Telemann’s piece is actually quite witty. However, it did highlight two of my favourite singers, the Zaire-born bass João Fernandes (Don Quixote), who reminded me of Laurent Naouri, and Spanish baritone Gabriel Bermúdez (Sancho Panza), who minded of Alan Opie: both comparisons intended as huge compliments.
Boussard’s arch-mugger was the American tenor Jeffrey Thompson who sang the alto line in the opening Purcell (Ode Celestial Music), dropping octaves to betray his true range and confusing the audience completely as to which singer was which. Thompson then went on to overact whenever he got the chance, particularly in the excerpt from Rameau’s Les Indes galantes where he played Valère to Florence-born soprano Céline Ricci’s Emilie who was a much more natural stage-presence. In his self-conscious attempt at hogging the limelight, Thompson, with his wide-lapel, wide-open shirt, seemed completely out of place: I got the distinct impression he wanted to be in a boy band, to dispense with the shirt altogether and uncover a pierced nipple. Any self-respecting director would have curtailed this unbalancing trait, especially in an ensemble evening; Boussard seems the sort of director to encourage it.
That leaves one singer to mention – French baritone Marc Mauillon – the youngest of the group at 22.Fresh-faced and natural, my real fear for him is that he may have picked up some decidedly bad dramatic habits.
Applications for the next “Les Jardin des Voix” course are invited soon. I suggest an advert for a better director! The music, and Christie’s expertise in bringing it to life, deserves better than the sabotage of staging it on this occasion. Instead of a beautiful landscape of depth and deep colour, we were offered bright pansies fighting for attention. No surprise then that the encore – from Rameau I believe – with all nine singers simply standing and singing was the most enjoyable.

 

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