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Les Arts Florissants (Part 1 of 2)

William ChristieOne of the main areas of my research in music history is French Baroque court ballet and opera. My doctoral dissertation was in this area, and I have written here about this fascinating period of music before, on October 13 and October 15. I mention this as a sort of disclaimer: because of my interests, I was inclined to like the performance of Les Arts Florissants last night at the Kennedy Center here in Washington. In the 25 years since William Christie (image at left from Laureto Rodoni's page on Rameau's Les Indes Galantes) founded this group in Paris (see my post on January 14, Happy Anniversary to Les Arts Florissants), they have created the absolute best sound in French Baroque performance. I was thrilled to have the chance to hear one of their rare performances in Washington. (I will not go as far as James R. Oestreich, who has publicly begged Christie to come back to live in the United States: see Reasons to Like William Christie, February 1, in the New York Times. What could possibly convince Christie to abandon France? The superior arts funding in the United States? Greater support in American culture for musicians and scholars? As Daffy Duck put it so well, it is to laugh.)

The smaller, intimate Eisenhower Theater was quite full, but I was disappointed to see a fairly large number of empty seats in the orchestra, especially toward the back and along the sides. This is probably due partly to the limited audience for French Baroque opera and partly to the very expensive ticket prices, even for the Kennedy Center. (Tickets at the Kennedy Center were $60 to $90, while the prices for the very same concert at Symphony Hall were $15 to $35: is the cost of living in Washington really three to four times more expensive than in Chicago?). You may remember my post about the Vienna State Opera (Opera and the Way Things Should Be, December 28), which regularly sells a large number of very cheap standing places on most evenings, shortly before curtain. How difficult would it be for the Kennedy Center to sell off unpurchased seats, an hour before curtain, on a first-come-first-served basis, for $5? I can tell you that I, for one, would be willing to stand in line from time to time for such an opportunity.

After opening at the Cité de la Musique in Paris on January 13 and 14, this production has toured several European cities. Erica Jeal reviewed the performance at the Barbican in London (in The Guardian, January 22), as did Anna Picard (in The Independent, January 25). Wynne Delacoma reviewed the performance (Inventive ensemble makes 300-year-old music live anew, February 3, in the Chicago Sun-Times) at Symphony Hall in Chicago on February 1. This concert consists of semistaged productions of two of the short chamber operas of Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643–1704), in honor of the 300th anniversary of that composer's death this year and the 25th anniversary of Les Arts Florissants. The first was Les Arts Florissants (H. 487, 1685–1686), from which this group took its name. Both of these short operas were first produced in Paris at the Hôtel de Guise, the residence of Charpentier's faithful patroness, Princesse Marie de Lorraine, usually known as Mademoiselle de Guise. (This building was owned by several families over the course of its history, including the Clisson, Guise, Soubise, and Rohan. The old entrance can still be seen at 58, rue des Archives. The entire group of historic buildings and gardens now houses the Archives nationales de France and the Musée de l'Histoire de la France.)

The sides of the small stage were occupied by the instrumentalists, with the violins, flutes, and oboes to house left, and the continuo group (viola da gamba, bassoon, theorbo, and William Christie at the harpsichord and organ) to house right. The singers played the space in between and behind them, which was often filled with lighted flowers on long stems mounted on rounded bases that allowed them to tilt back and forth. These were the only real set or prop item in the production. The costumes, designed by Christian Lacroix, were black tuxedos for the men, which they wore carelessly casual, without jackets and with shirts untucked and tieless ("as though they're waiting for a prefect to tell them to put their ties back on," as Erica Jeal put it). The women wore simple, off-the-shoulder gowns of a creamy hue, streaked with garish color, almost as if from fluorescent highlighters. The overall effect reminded me of the practiced nonchalance of a Rococo painting (say, François Boucher's Lovers in a Park, 1758, from the Timken Museum of Art, San Diego).

Christie's elegant solution to the problem of how to mount a travelling opera production is a minimalistic approach to musical personnel: the eight singers performed all of the choral parts as well as the solo roles. This works because a full staging is not required, so that the same singers can perform as the chorus of guerriers (warriors) and then appear in the solo roles of the competing allegorical characters, La Poésie, La Musique, La Peinture, and so on. Christie chooses his singers carefully, and this group are all strong as soloists as well as ensemble singers, something that is not necessarily common in the world of opera. Moments like the hushed, sotto voce choral response in the first scene ("Il vaut mieux manquer de les dire/Que de les dire faiblement" [Better not to speak of Louis's exploits at all than to speak of them feebly]) were exquisitely done. Christie understands the full dynamic range of his ensemble and manages it to greatest effect. From where I sat, I delighted in watching him at the keyboard: as one movement or section ended, his hand would rise to conduct with minimal, graceful, and precise gestures the next tempo and character. The most striking voices in the first opera were Sophie Daneman, who brought a powerful stage and vocal presence to the role of La Paix (Peace); and Cyril Auvity, who gave an excellent performance in the role that Charpentier created for himself, La Peinture (Painting), written for a taille, the very high tenor voice so favored in the French Baroque period.

Because he was out of favor with court composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, Charpentier was not able to receive much patronage from Louis XIV. This opera is an homage to the French monarch, apparently in the hope of influencing the king favorably: it shows the triumph of La Paix (peace) over La Discorde (conflict) under Louis's wise reign and the desire of the fine arts to please him. In her review of the London performance (see above), Anna Picard disapproved of Christie's decision to perform Les Arts Florissants this year, a work she calls "ravishingly scored but devoid of plot . . . As sentimental gestures go, performing the opera from which the group drew their name has a tinge of self-indulgence."

For my part, I thought the choice of this work quite à propos, since it effectively implores a government to see that war and strife can ruin a country and to turn its attention to the sponsorship of the fine arts under the tutelage of peace. Now there was no strident tone or sign in the performance that broadcast an antiwar message (no burning American flags or Bush-Blair effigies, which are far too crass for the refinement of this group) and I have no idea whether this interpretation was actually in the minds of William Christie or Vincent Boussard, who did the staging, but I think that message has a certain immediate relevance in today's Washington. I only wish that our very own American Roi-Soleil had been there to hear the extraordinary sarabande that concludes the opera, sung and played as reverently as a prayer, as the lights darkened to leave only the flowers glowing:

O paix si longtemps désirée,
Que tes fruits à goûter sont doux,
Tu ramènes les temps de Saturne et de Rhée,
Demeure toujours avec nous.
O Peace, so long desired,
How sweet-tasting are your fruits;
You bring back the time of Saturn and Rhea;
Remain with us forever.
To be continued. Go to Part 2.

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