Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment – 11 December

“Love Scenes from the French Court”

Rameau & Lully

Excerpts from:
Les fêtes d’Hébé
Castor et Pollux
Hippolyte et Aricie

Karine Deshayes (mezzo-soprano)
Paul Agnew (tenor)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Emmanuelle Haïm

Reviewed by: Peter Grahame Woolf

Reviewed: 11 December, 2002
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

This was a special evening of French baroque opera, devised by Emmanuelle Haïm, with the QEH already well filled for the illuminating pre-concert programme presented by expert baroque-dance specialists Chris Tudor and Nicola Gaines, with dance suites of Lully and Rameau played by a small group of OAE musicians. Alastair Macaulay told us about the original dance notations from the 18th-century which were being interpreted for us. Formal, yet with lively twirlings and little leaps, they were enjoyable to watch and stayed in the mind during the dances (integral to French baroque opera) which were included during the main concert of operatic excerpts.

Soon after William Christie’s controversially staged concert with the same composers, the two singers here did no more than look meaningfully at each other during their love duets.Both were in excellent voice and held the attention in recitative, so important in this repertoire, and in their arias and duets.Vocal substitutions are regularly needed during the season of winter ills, and Karine Deshayes was a worthy partner to Paul Agnew. I hope she will return soon.

What should solo singers do whilst waiting their turns? I have noted elsewhere, with approval, how some instrumentalists ’play themselves in’ with the orchestra in 18th–century concertos; Karine Deshayes was quietly ’inside the music’ throughout, following her score with visible absorption sitting next to Emmanuelle Haïm, who directed from the harpsichord in an eye-catching manner which was disconcertingly tiring to watch. Gyrations by conductors can distract attention from solo singers, who tend to present themselves modestly in concert. However, one can be forgiving, knowing how hard it has been for women to achieve centre stage as orchestral conductors (and how recently some orchestras accepted them unless they played the harp!) so Ms Haïm should be excused. The orchestral players scarcely seemed to look at her and no doubt the important work had been done at rehearsal. Perhaps she will soon learn that visible assertiveness can be counter-productive, other than to feed the media who are currently fêting her. Time may moderate what looked like exhibitionism; Sir Roger Norrington no longer leaps into the air whilst conducting and I found his gestures in Schubert’s 9th with the Philharmonia the next night entirely appropriate and concordant with the subtleties of rhythm and balance that he was achieving from his players.

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