L’Amour Triomphe: Rachel Podger Leads RAM Baroque Soloists to Triumph and Joy

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rameau, Telemann, Gluck: Rachel Podger (violin), Royal Academy of Music Baroque Soloists, Wigmore Hall, London, 6.5.2018. (CS)

Miss Puvigne as The Living Statue, in Pigmalion
1748 (colour engraving), French School, (18th century)
Private Collection/The Stapleton Collection/Bridgeman Images

TelemannDon Quichotte auf der Hochzeit des Comacho TWV21:32, Overture
RameauPlatée RCT 53 (excerpts)
Gluck Don Juan (excerpts)
RameauPigmalion RCT 52 (excerpts)

The starting-point for Christopher Wintle’s recent book, What Opera Means, is the search for a definition of opera which, in the author’s words, does not ‘take the harmony of drama and music – words and singing – for granted, as in the popular definition of opera as “sung drama”’, but sees these elements as ‘rival forces working together for a common good’.  The first element in Wintle’s tripartite ‘irreducible field of forces’, dramatized music, encompasses both song and instrumental music.  The latter includes overtures, interludes and ‘since music itself has three principal sources – song, dance and mimesis – it may also accompany ballet’.  In the theatre, Wintle proposes, such ‘abstract’ instrumental forms ‘acquire dramatic purpose’.

This concert at Wigmore Hall by the Royal Academy of Music Baroque Soloists, led by their director Rachel Podger, perfectly embodied the spirit of Wintle’s argument.  The ensemble presented a programme comprising an overture, a ballet d’action, a ‘burlesque’ suite, and an acte de ballet drawn from four eighteenth-century comédies lyriques, a genre which differed from the more elevated tragédie en musique in that it placed a greater emphasis on dance and allowed for comic, even ribald, elements.

The emphasis may have been on instrumental forms but there was no lack of dramatic impact and ‘theatre’.  Podger was an invigorating presence amid the young instrumentalists, deriving much evident pleasure from their stylish performances and from the music itself.  The freedom of her bow technique, the energy of her articulation, and the vivacity of her engagement with the music must have been inspiring for her fellow musicians.  They certainly played with considerable technical facility and accomplishment, as well as expressive flair, showing themselves to be expert practitioners of an idiomatic style which did not preclude flexibility, freedom and personal response.

Throughout, intonation was impressively secure and unisons were used expressively, sometimes acquirer a darker dramatic hue.  Neat, bright staccato articulations, thrilling whip-like runs, striking dynamic contrasts, and a full, warm tone were among the many qualities to be admired.  Occasionally, I’d have liked Podger to have encouraged a tad more weight and presence from the two cellos and single double bass, but the supporting line was always elegantly turned and the grace and lightness of the dancing, revelling and frolicking of the eight violins and four violas above was unfailingly refreshing.

If one were to quibble, one might note that the programme, focusing as it did on instrumental movements drawn from comic operas written between 1745 and 1761, was a little repetitive in a general sense, though there was plentiful diversity of musical forms and mannerisms, and the arrival of first woodwind and then brass for music by Rameau and Gluck respectively, and subsequently tenor Emanuel Heitz, to sing two airs from Rameau’s Pigmalion, added colour and animation.

As early as 1899, Telemann was dubbed ‘the father of German comic opera’ by musicologist Wilhelm Kleefeld, and he is thought to have composed more than forty theatrical works; but the closure of his operatic ‘base’, the Oper am Gänsemarkt in Hamburg, in 1738 forestalled performances of his operas and it was not until 1761 that Don Quichotte auf der Hochzeit des Comacho received its premiere.  When the Spanish praise a festive feast as being as sumptuous as ‘las bodas de Camacho!’ they are alluding to an episode from Cervantes’s novel in which the knight and his squire, Sancho Panza, find themselves guests at an extravagant ‘wedding of convenience’, arranged by the bride’s prosperous father, at which, through trickery, the penniless shepherd Basilio wins the beautiful Quiteria from the rich landowner Camacho.

The gifts for striking musical characterisation, pictorial humour, vivid Spanish-hued instrumental colours and rhythmic high-spiritedness which Telemann demonstrates in this burlesque, were fully apparent in the Overture here, in which a slower, gently swaying episode provided dulcet contrast and to the incisive framing Allegros the boisterousness of which summoned Basilio’s cunning and effrontery.

Rameau’s Platée, a ballet bouffon en un prologue et trois actes, was a last-moment addition to the festivities at Versailles during the early spring of 1745 in celebration of the marriage of Maria Teresa, Infanta of Spain, to Louis, Dauphin of France, and some argue that it is one of the most important predecessors of the opera buffa in France.  Dance was central to the ceaseless, sometimes farcical, comic energy of Platée (the original performance required 38 dancers) and the sequence performed by the Baroque Soloists captured all of the madcap verve of Rameau’s score as bows swept bracingly through rapid ascents and descents, accelerations raced breathlessly forward, and rhythms were crafted into muscular shapes.

Flute and bassoon added both animation and beauty, combining at the close of one number in a beautiful cadential gesture; a triple-time interlude enabled us to enjoy a flawlessly tuned duet for oboe and bassoon.  And, it was pleasing to see the woodwind players smiling with admiration as the strings surged and whisked through vibrant passagework.  The second violin and viola section-leaders relished the opportunity to exchange their strings for bells, drumming and jangling ebulliently in ‘Deux tambourins’.  The whole sequence was characterised by well-controlled rhetoric and clarity of line which brought to life the sparkling interchanges of Rameau’s drama.

The excepts from Gluck’s ballet-pantomime Don Juan, which had its premiere at the Vienna Burgtheater in October 1761, conjured an almost Mozartian dramatic pulse – one could not help but imagine Mozart recalling this score when he composed some of the intense, dark episodes of both Don Giovanni and the Requiem.  Benny Vernon showed that the strings did not have a monopoly on ‘precision’, as the sackbut’s octave leaps punctuated the swirling scales, while the presence of sackbut and horns in the ‘Ouverture’ added depth without tempering the delicacy.  The ‘Gavotte’ captured the Don’s courtly suavity as his guests arrive at his home, and the dance was enhanced by a graceful flute, while the ‘Moderato’ benefited from well-tuned string unisons, a subtle piano and graded dialogues, as well as an eloquent oboe solo.  The strings teased us with a pizzicato movement that tripped quietly, then whispered, before dissolving into the ether.

After the interval, the joyful momentum was readily resumed when Swiss tenor Emanuel Heitz joined the Baroque Soloists to perform a sequence from Rameau’s Pigmalion, an acte de ballet which was produced at the Paris Opéra in August 1748Based on a myth from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the libretto presents the marriage-foreswearing sculptor, Pigmalion, who falls in love with the statue he has created and finds Cupid is at hand to ease his distress and bring his creation to life.  The overture is pictorially and aurally evocative, repeated ‘hammerings’ in the rapid passagework evoking the sound of the artist’s chisel.  In the ensuing numbers, to the ensemble’s rich sound, glossy streams of semiquavers, telling accents, suave hemiolas and slick elisions of swiftly changing tempi was added noteworthy virtuosity from the piccolo flute.  Podger had explained that Heitz was feeling somewhat out of sorts but he performed two of the eponymous sculptor’s arias with focus and convictions, singing confidently from memory.  ‘Fatal Amour, Cruel Vainqueur’ (Fatal Love, cruel conqueror) lies quite high, and Heitz sounded a little taut at the top, but not un-sweet; the phrasing was lyrical and the vocal sensibility was again complemented by some genteel flute-playing.  ‘Règne, Amour, fait briller tes flames’ (Reign, Love, let your flames shine) begins with melismatic rhetoric which Heitz pronounced as agilely as the elaborate coloratura that ensued, and his characterisation was stylish.  In the final ‘Contredanse’, the tenor picked up the tambourine to join with the instrumentalists and bring the evening to a resoundingly joyful close.

Claire Seymour

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