Les Arts Florissants, William Christie’s famous ensemble, gave a performance like no other at the Melbourne Recital Centre – thanks in large part to the element of surprise.
The audience may well have read the program notes: “For 35 years, Les Arts Florissants and William Christie have been taking audiences on journeys of discovery into the past. Established to recreate the glorious sounds of Baroque opera on instruments of the period, Les Arts Florissants is a pioneer in the renaissance of early music.”
The choice of the six singers was revealed too. They were recent graduates of Christie’s biennial academy to seek out and foster the world’s brightest and best young singers, Le Jardin des Voix (The Garden of Voices). After hearing them, the Melbourne audience would no doubt agree that William Christie had proved “a remarkably prescient talent-spotter of the next generation of Baroque singers”, as claimed in the program.
The performance, however, also presented music of the 18th century – such as Mozart, Porpora, Haydn – after a first half devoted to such baroque masters as Handel, Vivaldi and Stradella.
But the surprise was only hinted at in the information that the performance would be “semi-staged … a magical evening in an Italian garden”. With only minimal props it was left to the singers to create a world of intense feeling, so convincing that they might well have been in a number of full operatic productions. This was the triumph of the performance.
The Madrigal from Banchieri’s Il Zabaione musicale could hardly have been better chosen to highlight individual voices, the blend of those voices, and the glorious sound of the baroque ensemble that supported them. Overwhelmingly there was a sense of fun – with surtitles letting the audience into the jokes.
This was followed closely by the first of a number of gems by Stradelli. from the cantata Amanti ola ola – and then Vecchi’s L’humore musicale, which suited both orchestra and singers. The lower strings’ rich strong introduction led to theatrics in which the singers were anxious to get their chance, and the conductor was drawn into the game. As the singers sang a capella it was a chance to note (as many times on the night) how well the voices blended – and this was not by chance.
Every singer justified his or her inclusion in the ensemble and it seems unfair to single out one, but both I and a fellow-reviewer were completely charmed by the French mezzo, Lea Desandre, whose creamy, flexible voice stood her in good stead, whatever the mood of the song and there were many.
Songs of courtship were easily recognisable (even without the surtitles) but the rage of “Ah sleale, ah spergiura” from Vivaldi’s Orlando Furioso, (sung convincingly by Italian baritone Renato Dolcini) was frightening in its intensity. It was a masterstroke of programming to follow it with the more familiar, and gentle, Handel aria: “Lascia la spina”, (a chance for Spanish soprano Lucia Martin-Carton to shine).
It was easy to focus on the singers but the orchestra was of course worthy of praise too. The perfect baroque band, the musicians played briskly, in sync, yet making the most of every contrapuntal opportunity. Despite the complexity of some of the music, Christie conducted unassumingly, swinging around to face the singers at every difficult cadence, or other times when direction was needed for the group.
There was less drama, perhaps, and more comedy, but as much fine musicianship in the second half of the program. The Finale, Haydn’s “Son confuso e stupefatto” from Orlando Paladino was the perfect ending to convey this light-hearted mood, while still being a showcase for all voices.
Before the concert there had been the chance for the audience to join Early Music specialist Marshall McGuire as he chatted with William Christie. I missed that, but being seated next to McGuire for the performance, I warned him I’d be asking for the definitive statement about Les Arts Florissants’ performance afterwards!
‘It was lovely”, he said, as the encore finished. “Just lovely”. And it was.