United States Charpentier, Purcell: Laureates of Le Jardin des Voix, Les Arts Florissants / William Christie (harpsichord and conductor), Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, 7.11.2017. (LV)
Charpentier – Actéon, H.481
Purcell – Dido and Aeneas, Z.626
In Los Angeles, HIP master William Christie and Les Arts Florissants (LAF) launched a brief swing through the West Coast, though their efforts were lost in the vast confines of a less-than-full Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Christie launched his career on the French Harmonia Mundi label, with audiophile harpsichord recitals and the ensemble Concerto Vocale (with René Jacobs, Konrad Junghänel, and Jaap ter Linden among others). Since the late 1970s, Christie’s body of work has come to define a consistent trademark HIP style based on knowledge, tempered by experience and musicality. Moreover, whether playing in the pit for Purcell’s King Arthur with Alfred Deller or conducting Mozart’s Magic Flute, Christie has exulted in sound.
In fact, when he made his Harmonia Mundi recording of Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer, which helped the label break open the United States market, Christie told me that his ideal harpsichord sound was as if he were inside the harpsichord – in other words, color and dynamic range counted for a lot.
In this concert of works by Charpentier and Purcell, he aimed for and achieved the same big sound, and with stage director Sophie Daneman, also aimed for big theatrical experiences in Disney Hall. For Purcell, it worked, but the process of projecting the instrumentalists and the singers lost the intimacy of Charpentier’s charming pastoral effects. That did not stop soprano Élodie Fonnard as Charpentier’s Diane from commanding the stage every time she moved, even before she sang a note. And when those notes came, they were large, secure, soaring, florid, and intoxicating.
Christie and his crew made as good as case as possible for Actéon, although they seemed less interested in its moments of fragile intimacy than in the exuberant pleasures of the chase and the hunting horn. With exactly one oboist, two violinists, one violist, and the aforementioned Dunford, Vizier and Christie, thrilling noise was generated by hunters bounding through the woods after stags. The French, by the largely French-Italian cast, was fluent and sweet.
Purcell’s richly-layered Dido and Aneas, which invites and prospers from deeply personal approaches within practically any overall stylistic framework, was led by mezzo soprano Lea Desandre and baritone Renato Dolcini in the title roles. Both sang with seamless tone and virtuosity, well schooled in the relevant musicology – and both loved munching to the extent that they could, by crouching and stalking and clawing the non-existent scenery. Throughout the cast, the singing was so good and the ensemble work so selfless, that they could have rotated the musicians at will without losing a beat. The singers’ English was often natural and always quite earnest.
As the performance progressed Dido flowed more confidently, encouraged by the audience as the familiar big moments came along. The instrumental interludes – particularly an infectious rhythmic hornpipe – were as richly enjoyable as the Witches’ songs.
There was something special about the French-Italian Desandre. In Actéon, as Charpentier’s Junon, she demonstrated that rare ability to turn her body and face into the character she was singing – so boldly and charismatically at times that it verged on caricature. She was haunted, stark, wickedly powerful. As Purcell’s Dido she was more patient but similarly intense; “When I am laid to earth” was a shattering climax, spiritual as well as theatrical.
Guided by Christie on an arc through Purcell’s miraculous suspensions of time and space (even if they were too loud at times), the six instrumentalists were virtuosos who knew the music inside out; each played both with personal integrity and in total communication with everyone onstage. As the members of the basso continuo always do, theorboist Thomas Dunford and cellist Alix Verzier made all the difference as they magnificently fleshed out Christie’s barely audible harpsichord line.
Daneman’s graceful direction contributed to the splendid effects in both entertainments. A world-class soprano and stage director, she moved her singers behind and among the musicians, while understanding what the former are capable of, and the latter are comfortable with.
Christie will bring the chaste, glorious beauties of his Charpentier-Purcell evening to Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley on November 9 and then to Green Music Center in Sonoma. Despite my reservations, not to be missed, especially in more appropriate acoustics.