Charpentier 300 : LAF 25 (Barbican, 20 January)

Les Arts Florissants
La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers

Sunhae Im, Olga Pitarch & Sophie Daneman (sopranos)
Katalin Károlyi (mezzo-soprano)
Cyril Auvity, Paul Agnew & Jean-Yves Ravoux (tenors)
Nicolas Rivenq (baritone)
João Fernandes (bass)

Les Arts Florissants
William Christie

Stage presentation – Vincent Boussard

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 20 January, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Just over a year ago I reviewed a new initiative by William Christie and his Les Arts Florissants – now celebrating its 25th anniversary – which plans to introduce new singers: Le Jardin des Voix.Although it is always a joy to welcome great new talent, I was concerned about the presentation.I quote: “Unfortunately, they had also been ’directed’ – by Vincent Boussard, the culprit named in the programme.And regrettably M Boussard’s involvement almost completely 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 provided for them 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.”

Well the same criticism could be levelled at this commemoration of the 300th-anniversary of Charpentier’s death. Boussard was back, and his style has not radically improved. And this time, for the most part the stage was littered with something in the region of 35 self-standing flowers, lit with bulbs at the top and planted in what could be described as half coconuts, which meant that when brushed past, even if knocked over, they righted themselves effortlessly. Think “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down” and you get the picture.

For Les Arts Florissants – from which the ensemble takes its name (an inspired choice of the group’s first tenor, Michel Lapléine, who favoured it over the original – and less snappy – L’ensemble vocal et instrumental baroque de l’Ile de France) – there were a few chairs for the singers to sit on, folders in hand (in which they pretended to sketch, but which actually contained their scores), but their antics on and off the chairs seemed to make little sense. Certainly it added only mystification to the genial praise of peace that Charpentier wrote about Louis XIV, with various artists – poet, musician, architect, painter etc – adding their voices. Christie wrote in the programme about how dramatic he saw this piece; it is not dramatic at all, and any incidental heightened sense of occasion was cruelly sapped by Boussard’s severely challenged imagination.

At least the claim of La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers to drama has inspired many other composers than Charpentier, and this – his second version of the tale, after an earlier cantata – has much more dramatic possibilities.Here at last – with an additional two weeble-flower-lights (if I may term them) – the first scene, set in a field amidst flowers in celebration of Euridice and Orpheus’s wedding, made some sense, as did the idea that Sophie Daneman’s fatal malaise is at first understood by onlookers to be a prick of a thorn, not a serpent’s bite. An interlude followed of singers collecting the WFLs (work the acronym out) and putting them at the back of the stage, leaving only one for Paul Agnew as Orpheus to carry for the rest of the piece. That Cyril Auvity as Ixion, Jean-Yves Ravoux as Tantalus and Nicolas Rivenq as Tityus had to signify their cruel fate (respectively being bound to a revolving to a wheel, never to be able to get the food and drink laid out in front of him and having his liver perpetually pecked by vultures) by grasping their lapels together and looking as if they were sheltering from rain, was just another deficiency in the production.

It turns out, though, to have a happy ending with Orpheus successful not only in getting Euridice out of the underworld, but also withstanding everybody’s pleas that he should remain there. Although a quiet ending, we were treated to the final chorus of Les Arts Florissants as an encore, to send us out into the cold-night air warmed by Charpentier’s invention, if not a satisfactory visual event.

For the record, the continuo group was at the back on the right (Christie on both harpsichord and organ), with strings and wind, standing, on the left as you looked at the stage. Given the individuality of each instrumentalist, perhaps it’s not surprising that each were almost as distractingly mobile as the WFL.

So, on balance, a wonderful musical evening – in many senses beautiful to look at, the ladies dressed in classically flowing ivory Christian Lecroix frocks – with Agnew stealing the singing honours, but oh how much better it would have been without the direction. While we can now hear Charpentier as close to how he would have heard it, this “staging” did not attempt period style and did not satisfy modern tastes. It is great that the Barbican continues to support the group and that a fully staged Rameau opera – Les Paladins – is heading London’s way this year, but twice now I would rather we had a concert performance than M Boussard’s fripperies. I read with dismay he’s directing another Le Jardin de Voix in 2005. Go blindfolded!

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