OAE/Jonathan Cohen at Queen Elizabeth Hall with Sarah Connolly & Fernando Guimaraes – Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers: French Exchanges

Marc-Antoine Charpentier
Medée [selections]
Michel Richard de Lalande
La grande pièce royale
Henry Purcell
Dido and Aeneas [selections]
Dioclesian [selections]
Jean-Philippe Rameau
Hippolyte et Aricie [selections]
Les Paladins [selections]

Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano) & Fernando Guimaraes (tenor)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Jonathan Cohen

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: 8 November, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

You can always rely on Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for an intelligently constructed programme – in this case a complementary selection of theatrical music by the French masters that Charles II encountered during his exile at the court of Louis XIV, and by the English composer who absorbed its influence into his own distinctive style, Henry Purcell.

Sarah ConnollyContrast was introduced to the generally dance-based orchestral movements with arias sung by Sarah Connolly and Fernando Guimaraes. Connolly was by far the most impressive. An impassioned rendition of a tragic aria sung by the title character of Charpentier’s Medée (1893), which foreshadows the poignancy of Purcell’s Dido, was followed by a subtly restrained yet acutely intense account of that doomed heroine’s famous ‘Lament’. Sung straight from the soul, if Connolly’s performance had come at the climax of the complete opera it would have been inescapably tear-jerking.

Fernando Guimaraes. Photograph: fernandoguimaraes.weebly.comGuimaraes’s strong affinity for the French idiom and his dramatic involvement were not always matched by absolute vocal reliability or tonal beauty, but he was a solid partner for Connolly in their one duet – a dramatic scene from Rameau’s first opera Hippolyte et Aricie. Jonathan Cohen’s direction – standing at a harpsichord which he occasionally sat to play – was crisp and businesslike, but not consistently inspiring. The OAE responded with vigour and stylish buoyancy, just occasionally coming close to being derailed in some of the brisker movements.

The predominance of strings was augmented by colourful woodwind. The prominent bassoon part in de Lalande’s 1695 suite of dance movements La Grande Pièce Royale (a particular favourite of Louis XIV) was handled with virtuosic aplomb by Philip Turbett; and the plaintive suspensions in a ‘ground’ from Purcell’s 1690 semi-opera Dioclesian was enchantingly played by a pair of ear-caressing recorders (Catherine Latham and Anthony Robson).

The programme flowed well, from Charpentier to de Lalande to Purcell, via the French-style Overture to Dioclesian, written five years before his tragically early death – the same year as de Lalande’s Grande Pièce. After the interval, we leapt forward by nearly half a century to the grander Baroque age of Rameau, ending with a suite from one of last works – Les Paladins (1760) – from a time when Rameau was incontestably the greatest living French composer, but being rapidly outmoded elsewhere in Europe by Gluck and Haydn. The highlight was a furiously lively ‘Contredanse’ featuring merrily chirruping piccolos.

Although, on the whole, musically slight, this otherwise pleasant evening was elevated by Sarah Connolly’s contribution.

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