Promoting Historically-Inspired Performances of Early Music and Baroque Opera
Les Arts Florissants - 25th Anniversary Tour
During the first week of February, William Christie and Les Arts Florissants brought their touring Charpentier program to New York on the group's 25th anniversary and the 300th anniversary of Charpentier's death. The performances exemplify the strengths and weaknesses of the historic performance movement 25 years on.
To summarize: the most skilful early instrumentalists, including those in the LAF tour, play at a very high level. While I think it would be a mistake to underestimate the abilities of performers in the 17th and 18th Centuries -- when there were no telephones, televisions, movies, computers, automobiles, railways, health clubs, or other modern distractions -- the best contemporary instrumentalists probably approach professional historical standards.
French baroque singing today may also meet or exceed historical standards. Without exception to my knowledge, Italian opera fanciers found French singers to be abysmal in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries. French singers did not receive the intensive, long-term training provided to promising Italians, particularly castrati. Furthermore, in France, the most celebrated musical entertainers were the dancers, who neither sang or spoke. Posture, movement and gesture were appreciated in France, but the vocal gymnastics of Italian opera stars generally were not.
Where the HIP movement has failed with few exceptions since its inception is in the recreation of historic stagings, costumes, gestures, and dance, ie, the arts that are seen rather than heard. The Charpentier program is a case in point. First, the threadbare "costumes" appeared to have been scavenged from a dumpster at a strip mall with a discount formal wear outlet and an Indian sarong factory. I have an old white shirt smeared with yellow and red Rustoleum primer following some wrought iron restoration. Before the concert I considered it to be a rag. Having seen the male singers similarly attired, perhaps I should sell it on eBay as a "chemise baroque".
The set consisted of a garden of silk flowers with battery-powered light bulbs in the centers, each mounted atop a three-foot rigid stalk that connected to the flat surface of a half-dome base. When bumped, the units swung to and fro like an inverted pendulum until returning to the perpendicular. The rationale for the lights only emerged after the finales, when the concert hall lights were turned out to reveal a lighted garden.
Movements and gestures followed the unfortunate early opera norm -- a 1963 high school production of "South Pacific". Since the performers have to spend considerable time studying and practicing for any staging, why not have them study historically informed movements and gestures? They would become proficient in due course if there were more true HIP productions.
No dancers were engaged for the ballets.
Musically, both works were reorchestrated for increased volume and contrasting effects. The new instruments consisted of a pair of oboes and a bassoon, a chamber organ, a reed organ (which I will refer to as a regal, reflecting its sound quality if not its taxonomy), and in Les Arts Florissants, which was scored for viols, flutes and continuo, violins.
Christie accompanied the three viols in La Descente with the pipe organ, as he did on the 1995 recording. In the recording, the balance favored the viols, whereas at the live concert, they were overwhelmed by the organ.
The oboes, bassoon and regal accompanied Pluton ("Que cherche en mon palais" etc.), bringing to mind Chedeville's reorchestration of others' works, including Vivaldi's Four Seasons, to include a hurdy-gurdy. This is a departure from the recording, which featured what presumably was the original instrumentation -- flutes and harpsichord.
The musical performances were excellent. The continuo players were aligned along the right side of the stage, while the violins and woodwinds stood in two rows along the left side of the stage. The singers spent most of their time in the center. In Les Arts Florissants, they stood and sat on folding chairs and at one point had to sing a chorus while balancing notebooks on their heads. Perhaps this was a parody of some posture exercise to which French schoolchildren are subjected. Otherwise, the director's proscribed antics did not unduly handicap the performers.
The audience was provided with a nicely typeset, bi-lingual libretto containing the same translations included with the LAF recordings. Concert hall lights were left on throughout, making it easy to follow the libretto. This arrangement is vastly preferable to the growing practice of projecting an English translation over the stage to a darkened auditorium.
Johan van Veen's review of an earlier performance of the same production provides a more detailed discussion of the two works and critique of the singers.
Les Arts Florissants
La Poésie: Sunhae Im, Soprano
La descente d'Orphée aux enfers
Daphné: Sunhae Im, Soprano
Viola da Gamba
Flutes & Recorders
Harpsichord and organs