Les Arts Florissants: Le Jardin Des Voix

Madrigals: Questi vaghi concerti; Io mi son giovinetta; Mentre vega Angioletta; Lamento della Ninfa
L’Orfeo – Dal mio permesso amato; Possente spirto
L’Incoronazione di Poppea – Pur ti miro
Tra più riposti abissi dell’Erebo profondo
La Calisto – Lucidissima face
Passacaglia a 3 and a 4
Arminio – Ritorna nel core
Deidamia – M’hai resa infelice
Rinaldo – Vo’ far guerra
La buona figliuola – Guria di donna irata
L’incontro improvviso – Son quest’occhi

Francesca Boncompagni, Laura Hynes Smith, Claire Meghnagi, Sonya Yoncheva (sopranos)
Amaya Dominguez (mezzo-soprano))
Michal Czerniawski (countertenor)
Pascal Charbonneau, Juan Sancho, Nicholas Watts (tenors)
Jonathan Sells (bass)

Les Arts Florrisants
William Christie

Reviewed by: John T. Hughes

Reviewed: 24 March, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The overall effect of this concert was that it was an evening of small voices. Obviously I do not want Wagnerian sopranos or singers equipped for Verdian dramas but I should have liked better projection of tone, particularly from two of the sopranos. These young singers were not helped by the semi-staging, which had some of them simply wandering around the platform. Far better in a hall like the Barbican would it have been had they just stood and sung right at the audience. This hall is rather wide, and when two singers face each other they turn their back on many of the listeners, thus nullifying the effect of the voices.

Of the ten soloists, the three tenors made the biggest impact, and two of them were the first to make much of an impression. That was in Monteverdi’s “Mentre vaga Angioletta”, a florid piece whose figurations were clearly executed by Juan Sancho and Pascal Charbonneau: very stylish singing. The Carissimi cantata followed, sung by Laura Hynes Smith, Francesca Boncompagni and Jonathan Sells. The bass successfully negotiated his angular line, but his voice seemed rather bottled, as though he was frightened to open up. Laura Hynes Smith offered a warmer, more rounded tone than Boncompagni, whose rather small, white voice caused me to wonder how much impact she would make later.

The aria from “L’Orfeo” brought a performance from the stronger-voiced Claire Meghnagi which was full of feeling, and a very sensitive account of Endimione’s “Lucidissima face” from “La Calisto” was given by Michal Czerniawski, whose soft-grained countertenor had an attractive quality. Monteverdi’s “Lamento della ninfa”, with its interesting harmonies, enabled us to hear the two tenors giving another delightful contribution, but Boncompagni annoyingly chose to stress initial consonants overmuch, which she tonelessly lengthened before forming an actual note. If that was Monteverdian style, thank goodness the other nine singers eschewed it. She presented a thin tone more girlish or infantile than womanly.

The third tenor, Nicholas Watts, who sang a leading role in some performances of Mozart’s “La finta giardiniera” at Covent Garden last year, gave an accomplished account of “Possente spirto”, be it with his flexibility in vocal ornaments or in the simpler, searching lines as Orfeo beseeches Charon to ferry him across the Styx as he seeks Eurydice. The final piece in the first half was the duet “Pur ti miro”, whose attribution to Monteverdi is now in question. It was in this duet that the singers, Sonya Yoncheva and Michal Czerniawski, often turned at right angles to the audience, so that the former’s lower notes, not well projected, were almost inaudible; upper notes were much clearer.

The second part included three Handel items. In the “Deidamia” aria, Toncheva again undersang, with more weak bottom notes. More low notes without strength came in Hynes Smith’s singing of the Piccinni aria. She made the right effort, but the voice lacked sufficient power to convey rage, suggesting that the Marchesa Lucinda was cross rather than furious. The mezzo-soprano Amaya Dominguez, who was somewhat short-changed in the programme, did project her voice: a pleasing contrast to two of the sopranos. I should have liked a bigger contribution from her, for she was capable of communicating Armida’s desire for revenge in “Vo’far guerra”. In this performance were incorporated harpsichord solos from the edition by William Babell. They were enthusiastically played by Benoît Hartoin.

Last on the bill was the extract from Haydn’s “L’incontro improvviso”: not top-class Haydn. An unannounced encore, unknown to me, brought together all the soloists. It was a lovely piece, its overall sound very pleasant, but neither I nor the two people behind me managed to distinguish any of the words, so quietly was it sung. One question asked about music by Monteverdi and his contemporaries is whether the singing should be precious and perfumed or whether there should be some ‘earthiness’.

Despite my reactions to some of the singers and to the unneeded movements, much was to be enjoyed, especially the playing and very sound of the instruments. Everyone playing a bowed instrument, apart from the cellists, stood when performing. Under William Christie’s direction, Les Arts Florissants gave much pleasure, as was expected.

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