The Garden of Voices – 19 November

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

Reviewed by: Peter Grahame Woolf

Reviewed: 19 November, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The Barbican is always completely sold out for the London visits of Les Arts Florissants; such is their reputation and William Christie’s. This programme of scenes from Baroque opera was an opportunity to introduce British audiences to Christie’s new educational project, an international Academy for young singers based at the Theatre de Caen. Their standard was generally very high, but I do not think it appropriate to distribute laurels individually – they are still developing and many of them will certainly make their mark.

What gave special satisfaction, and continual frissons of delight, was the inspired staging, without props or costumes. The division of labour was unclear, but Vincent Boussard, drama coach, must share credit for the extraordinary visualisation and moving physical interactions, which left no regrets that these excerpts were not fully staged. Singers left their seats, wending their ways around and through the orchestra, to identify with lovers and villains, amuse us as Sancho Panza and his master, and terrify us as they were tossed around the stage in Rameau’s dreadful storm at sea, a virtuoso piece of choreography.

Rapport was so excellent and relaxed that singers were even able to share the tiny rostrum with Christie himself, once bringing him into the action by putting an arm round his shoulder – how many famous conductors would tolerate that? William Christie, who understands this music as well as anyone in the world, is very laid-back as conductor, often standing still during solos. He kept a benign, ever-watchful eye on proceedings, whilst freeing his singers to take complete command, supported by equally well-rehearsed continuo players.

Immense attention and expert knowledge had clearly gone into the gestural language, which was movingly affecting, and never stiff or formal, however ’authentic’ or not. The lengthy Lully and Rameau recitatives never palled, and the cunning sequence of some of the best music from Amadis, Les Indes galantes, Orlando, Giulio Cesare, Don Quichotte and King Arthur made a veritable feast for eyes and ears. The lavish, fully illustrated book was free, as usual for the “Great Performers” series.

This well-honed, joyous event was a notable exemplar of how Baroque opera can be brought fully alive outside the theatre. It has been touring internationally, finishing in Madrid on 26 November. The Barbican concert will be televised on BBC4 in January. Unmissable!

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