Les Arts Florissants

Alice Tully Hall
14 February, 2001

I wish to start this article while still under the spell of a phenomenally moving and satisfying performance. This evening William Christie's most impressive group of singers and instrumentalists (playing period instruments) presented a partially staged double-bill of baroque operas:   Actéon, by Jean Phillipe Rameau, most likely written and performed in the 1680s or 1690s and Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, written for a girls' school and first performed in September 1690, with revivals in 1700 and 1704 before being forgotten for 200 years.

A one-act opera, Actéon recounts the story of the hero's quest to find and kill a bear that has been threatening the goddess Diana.  Deciding to rest from his hunt near a stream, he discovers the goddess and her companions cavorting in the stream.  He is discovered and Juno turns him into a stag who is torn apart by Actéon's own hunting dogs.  Tenor Paul Agnew performed the title role to perfection! His diction was impeccable, even if his name sounds British, American or Greek.  But that appears to be a given with this group of mostly French artists:  their English in Dido and Aeneas was just about accent-free, with one singing a very convincing Cockney accent.  But more about that further on.

Diana (Diane) was sung by soprano Sophie Daneman, Juno (Junon) by dramatic soprano Stéphanie D'Oustrac, with all featured soloists sharing the responsibilities of the chorus.  The men were dressed in dinner jackets with tieless grey and/or white dress shirts. The women wore silk gowns in deep, primary colors.  The orchestra was set up in a semi-circle around the stage with empty chairs in the center.  When the singers entered they sat with their backs to the audience for the overture, turning around to face us as they appeared in the action.  They used the downstage area, stage right and stage left behind the musicians, and far upstage in which to perform.  Scenery and period costumes could not have made the action and music more alive than what Christie's forces achieved in this staging.

For the Purcell opera, the empty chairs were removed and the singers entered and stood stage center-again with their backs to the audience, turning around when their characters-whether chorus or principles were first called upon to take part in the action. There was no change of costume. Dido was performed by Stéphanie D'Oustrac, with Ms Daneman taking the role of Belinda and Nicolas Rivenq as Aeneas with the Sorceress sung by a counter-tenor. Again, the diction-this time in English-was well-nigh perfect, with somewhat over-dentalized d's and t's and one momentary slip when "dese" was sung instead of "these."  But that is minor, especially when we consider how most non-French singers perform French opera.  I have heard this opera many times and even own the Christie recording, but never have I been as moved by it as on February 14.  As the dying Dido, Ms D'Oustrac came close to leaving me in tears.

You can well imagine why-when the music was over and the enchantment began to abate somewhat-I leapt to my feet applauding and shouting "BRAVI!"  I was not the only audience member to do this.  Christie's forces regaled us with an encore-a short choral work on the birthday of Oberon possibly from Purcell's The Fairy Queen.

Whenever a concert by Les Arts Florissants is announced for the New York area (including the Brooklyn Academy of Music) tickets disappear quickly, so much are we New Yorkers starved for music-making of this quality. If they should perform near where you live, I recommend that you book your seats immediately, if not sooner, especially if, as I do, you love Baroque opera.

-- Howard of Griswold Hall   

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Copyright:  © 2001 Howard Levin

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