A Taste of the French and Italian Baroque: Duetto/Duo with Jean-Paul Fouchécourt and Gaële Le Roi at Zankel

United StatesUnited States Lully, Charpentier, Lambert, Vittori, Cavalli, Melani, Monteverdi: Duetto/Duo, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (tenor), Gaële Le Roi (soprano), Ryan Brown and Elizabeth Field (violins), Loretta O’Sullivan (violoncello), Andrew Appel (harpsichord), Scott Pauley(theorbo), Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, 30-10-2011 (SSM)

In a gracious gesture, Ryan Brown, conductor and founder of the Washington-based Opera Lafayette, dedicated the opening excerpts from Lully’s Atys to William Christie. It was a fitting compliment since Mr. Brown’s group, at the forefront in reviving Baroque operas for the past 16 years, would have had to be inspired by the works discovered and performed by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants. Ryan has specialized too in unknown works by little known composers such as Sacchini, Francoeur and Monsigny (whose delightful Le Déserteur was performed here last year). Those who are in Washington or in Versailles in February will have the opportunity to attend Opera Lafayette’s world premiere of Monsigny’s Le Roi at le fermier.

Starting with Christie’s revival of Atys at BAM, New York audiences have been exposed to more French Baroque music this season than in the past, and in particular to Lully. A generation ago this music was dismissed as frilly, simplistic and overly ornate: good as background to events with pomp and circumstance, but not to be taken seriously. The operas of this period can seem filled with over-the-top libretti, gods coming down to vie with humans, deus ex machina events and exaggerated expressiveness. This is true but then so are most operas from the Magic Flute through The Ring cycle. It is the music that ultimately matters, and French Baroque’s dancing dotted rhythms, syncopations and the continual ostinati are instantly captivating.

One of the most ubiquitous signatures of French Baroque music is the chaconne. There is something inherent in its beat that makes improvisation and variation a natural. Regardless of what is played above the bass ground, the repeating motifs will drive the piece forward to an appealing musical end. As Alex Ross states in an essay on the chaconne, it is “perfectly engineered to bewitch the senses,” resulting in its most intense form as “a little sonic tornado that spins in circles while hurtling forward.” One need only understand the appeal of Philip Glass’s music to appreciate the chaconne’s power.

The chaconne has an opposite effect when played slowly: it can be soothing and limpid. Fouchécourt’s choice of air de cours by Michel Lambert included two chaconnes which are distinctly calm: “Vos mépris chaque jour me causent mille alarmes,” and “Ma bergère.” Fouchécourt sang these and other arias with great artistry and expressiveness. His voice still retains its idiosyncrasy and the distinctiveness that was so critical to the success of his well-known performance in Rameau’s Platée.

Here as in the Rameau opera he used gesture and exaggeration to highlight the words, emphasizing text that clearly was meant to be comic. The humorous song “My bergère” ends with the lines “She loves her flock, her crook and her dog/And I can love no one else but her.” Fouchécourt literally barked the penultimate line. The other Lambert songs were enchanting if not as interesting verbally. They express the ubiquitous theme that love is pleasurable pain: “I do not sing to beguile my sadness/but rather to prolong it,” or “Alas, if in my unhappiness I find so much delight I would die of pleasure if I were happier.”

The program opened with some selections of scenes from Atys. The brief opening ritournelle led into Fouchécourt’s first aria, “Allons, allons.” Fouchécourt’s voice was well-centered and natural sounding. His voice falls into the category of high-tenor (haut-contre), and only once or twice did the music require him to go beyond his range into falsetto. Joining him in Atys was Gaële Le Roi who matched or even went beyond Fouchécourt in theatrical expressiveness. Compared to Fouchécourt her voice at times lacked clarity and sweetness, and in her aria from Melani’s Empio Punito she had difficulty reaching down to her lower range.

I am not sure why large stretches of recitativos secce were chosen when so much more in the way of accompanied recitatives or just traditional arias is available. This was most particularly true of the excerpts from Vittori’s La Galatea. In addition, closing the recital with a scene from Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea was not out of keeping with the rest of the program, but this scene is not representative of the opera which is as dark as a Shakespearean tragedy.

Despite my few cavils, this was an extremely pleasant evening. The instrumentalists were right on the mark and gave sound coloring and exceptional attention to detail. Ryan Brown’s easy virtuosity adds to his already commendable reputation as a conductor. The audience was remarkably in tune with the performance, perhaps erring on the side of coolness but completely coughless and silent during the frequent retuning moments common to Baroque stringed instruments. The ambiance and sharp acoustics of Weill Recital Hall only added to the pleasure of the evening.

Stan Metzger