The Three Sopranos: William Christie Conducts Students from Juilliard’s Historical Performance Program

United StatesUnited States H. Purcell, J.P. Rameau: Katherine Whyte (soprano), Raquel Gonzalez (soprano), Lilla Heinrich Szász (soprano), Juilliard415, William Christie (conductor), Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center New York, 26.1.2012 (SSM)

H. Purcell:Excerpts from The Fairy Queen
J.P. Rameau: Excerpts from Les Fêtes D’Hébé


William Christie Photo: Denis Rouvre

It is no surprise that William Christie chose excerpts from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen to showcase students from the Juilliard School’s Historical Performance program. The Fairy Queen is a work close to his heart. Christie’s classic recording of this semi-opera in 1989 was wonderfully spirited and last year he directed it at the Brooklyn Academy of Music to rave reviews.

To do the entire opera, Christie would have needed a chorus, a cast of about 25 characters, additional instruments and four hours of performance time. The selections performed here were based on the musicians on hand, and only in the song “Now the night is chas’d away” did they perform music that requires the additional resources of a chorus. In its place, the instruments picked up what would have been the choral ritournelle. Prominently absent from The Fairy Queen excerpts was the ardent aria, “If love’s a sweet passion.”

The instrumental selections were played with an enthusiasm and professionalism that is truly delightful to hear from a group so young. These students are coming into the historically informed performance world at the right time: the instruments that were so difficult to play in the earlier days of historically informed performance are now more easily mastered. Although the trumpets used here are vented (true Baroque trumpets are without valves and vents), it is still admirable to see these students play them with such ease.

Katherine Whyte, had the right tessitura and vocal style for the Purcell arias but, I wish her voice had been strong enough for the audience to clearly hear the words. This was particularly true with the Act V plainte, “O let me ever, ever weep,” one of the most moving of all of Purcell’s music and similar in style to Dido’s Lament, “When I am laid in earth” from Dido and Aeneas. After hearing Lilla Heinrich Szász in the second part of the concert, I thought that she would have had just the right “whiteness” for this aria.

Rameau is another composer high on Christie’s list and his music was represented in last year’s program with Juilliard415, as well. That performance featured only instrumental music, but here vocal music was included. The chosen excerpts from Rameau’s little known opéra-ballet, Les Fêtes D’Hébé: Christie was involved with resurrecting this work and recorded the first complete performance of the opera in 1997.

Two very different sopranos shared the arias from this opera, Raquel González and Lilla Heinrich Szász. Ms. González certainly had a voice that could be clearly heard in the last row, but not really a voice for Rameau. Christie’s recording features singers Sophie Daneman, Sarah Connolly and countertenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt all of whom have voices free from more modern vocal styling. Lilla Heinrich Szász straddled the middle ground between the other two sopranos and was just right: a stronger voice than Ms. Whyte, yet correctly Baroque; a cleaner voice than Ms. González yet free of her more modern mannerisms. I will say though that Ms. Gonzales’s final aria “Eclatante trompette” did match in spirit the concluding instrumental fireworks.

Christie led the students as a sympathetic and positive teacher. Many of his gestures, aside from those highlighting sections of the orchestra when needed, were instructions to play softly. It was fascinating to see how intensely he listened to the arias that did not require him to conduct (they were accompanied by the basso continuo): he sat in a chair at one end of the stage as if a member of the audience, enthusiastically congratulating the musicians upon completion. This stepping back and letting go is the sign of a teacher who truly cares for and nourishes his students. He displayed a similar attitude with his elite student group, Le Jardin des Voix, during their performance at BAM last year.

This yearly recital by Juilliard415 and William Christie is eagerly anticipated and rightly so.

Stan Metzger