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Opera Lafayette at La Maison Française

Opera Lafayette, La Maison Française, December 17, 2005According to Roland Celette, the Cultural Attaché at the Embassy of France, the December 17 Baroque concert of Opera Lafayette at La Maison Française, where I found myself Saturday evening, is now an annual tradition. The group's audience base is now so strong and faithful that they had to turn some people away from this special winter concert. Hopefully, all those disappointed or otherwise unable to attend will mark their calendars for Opera Lafayette's 2006 performances, planned for a much larger venue at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. Last night, the audience was seated not in the embassy's auditorium but in the corner of the aquarium-walled main hall, closed off with moveable walls -- the space was absolutely packed with people, enough to make this Baroque specialist's heart soar.

Ryan Brown, Artistic Director of Opera Lafayette, created this program to present a sonic diptych of two parallel styles in the Baroque period. At the hockey game that Mini-Critic and I attended recently, there was a video presentation at one of the breaks, in which eight tough Caps players answered the question, "Dogs or cats?" Perhaps not surprisingly, dogs won, 8-0. Opera Lafayette's question was "Italian or French?" Now my francophilia is well known, but this is not a choice I feel I should have to make. The program began with excerpts from the first known opera on the Don Juan legend, Alessandro Melani's L'Empio Punito (1669), revived first by Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques at the Montpellier Festival in July 2004. (In fact, Gaële Le Roi, who sang the role of Acrimante in that performance and also has worked with Opera Lafayette, brought the work to Ryan Brown's attention.) As it turns out, a copy of the manuscript score of this opera was considered for the Vatican Exhibit at the Library of Congress but was ultimately not included. The opera was premiered in Rome, with a libretto by Giulio Rospigliosi, eventually known as Pope Clement IX, and the Vatican Library still owns it.

Also on Ionarts:

Opera Lafayette at Hillwood (October 2, 2005)

Sacchini's Œdipe à Colone (May 15, 2005)

Lully's Acis et Galatée (February 22, 2005)

Opera Lafayette (January 23, 2005)
In one of the oddest conjunctions in music history, Melani created the role of Acrimante -- the Don Juan character, the great seducer of women -- for a high castrato. Instead of Gaële Le Roi, we were treated to the soprano voice of Miriam Dubrow in three arias, all of which made me hope that someone releases a recording of this work soon. The first was the best, "Tormentose faville" (Tormenting sparks that burn in my breast), with Acrimante's lustful agitation rumbling in the basso continuo's torrent of eighth notes. Dubrow's voice combines a pretty simplicity with a dusky quality, a sort of underpinning vibrato that lends a sense of vulnerable fragility.

We heard her again in the first set of pieces from Monteverdi's eighth book of madrigals, as the nymph in the Lamento dell Ninfa, at the center of one of the madrigal chains that Monteverdi linked together into small, quasi-operatic scenes. Monteverdi's last book of madrigals was published almost 20 years after the seventh book, and the composer was no longer particularly concerned about the traditional definition of the madrigal genre. Given the title Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi, the book sets poetry related to the subjects of war and love and represents a daring mastery of new compositional techniques in the early 17th century. The three male voices -- tenors Tony Boutté and Eric Sampson were at times outweighed vocally by bass-baritone François Loup -- introduced the nymph's story in the first madrigal, Non havea Febo ancora. The same voices narrate the Lamento, occasionally punctuating the nymph's outpouring, over the mesmerizing ciacona bass pattern. This piece is unspeakably beautiful -- recorded admirably by William Christie's Les Arts Florissants on their collection of Madrigali amorosi -- and this performance was all one could have hoped.

These madrigali amorosi were balanced by three of the warlike type, featuring the main character of a soldier, performed by François Loup on the decidedly bass side of his bass-baritone voice. In the long monologue In che nell'otio nacqui, Loup and the instrumentalists gave an excellent rendition of Monteverdi's stile concitato, the use of rapid repeated notes in sung or played parts to convey battle or agitation. The Italian half was rounded out with instrumental selections, a Sonata a doi Violini (1621) by Francesco Turini first, featuring the trio sonata complement of instruments that accompanied much of the first half. Keyboardist Adam Pearl gave a sensitive and technically impressive performance of Girolamo Frescobaldi's Toccata Prima (1627), and Ryan Brown's reading of the violin sonata, op. 4, no. 2 ("detta La Luciminia contenta") was so full-blooded and virtuosic as to destroy utterly the false impression that Baroque performance should be pallid and lifeless.

For the French half of the evening, the mood lightened, with music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier for two of Molière's comedies. The entire instrumental consort -- violinists Ryan Brown and Elizabeth Field, violist Annie Loud, cellist Loretta O'Sullivan, harpsichordist Adam Pearl, and William Simms on his Baroque guitar instead of the big theorbo -- first played the Ouverture to Le Sicilien (1667, English translation). This led into a little scene featuring Tony Boutté and François Loup as two suitors for the same woman's hand. Their concluding duet ("Heureux, heureux matous" -- Happy, happy tom cat) featured their droll imitation of the cat's love song, echoed by the sliding strings in the final ritornello.

Opera Lafayette presented a longer series of pieces from Charpentier's music for Le Mariage Forcé (incredibly, available in an online facsimile of the manuscript text and music from the Bibliothèque nationale de France). This set concluded on a similar animal joke -- Molière, not unlike Baroque composers contemporary with him, was not averse to self-borrowing -- with the three men in the trio of grotesque older husbands adding bird, cat, and dog calls to disrupt "la belle simphonie." This concert was truly a delight, a program of rarities performed with absolute sensitivity melodic beauty and rhythmic élan.

Coming up in the New Year are the final two performances scheduled by Opera Lafayette, Airs and Dances from operas of Rameau (February 12) and a concert version with dance of Mozart's Idomeneo (June 2 and 3), both at the Clarice Smith Center in College Park. Also, harpsichordist Adam Pearl happens to be the director of the Ignoti Dei opera company, whose Web site I keep checking to see if they are performing anything this season. According to Pearl, the group will be staging a performance of Francesco Cavalli's opera La Didone (1641), as part of next summer's Washington Early Music Festival, on the theme of La Musica Antica d'Italia. You heard it here first. Ionarts will be there.


jfl said...

i find it amazing [yikes: strike that awful word and make it: delightful] that f.loup still sings and sings so darn well. i'd say that he can still teach most of them young folk a lesson - but that would be a bit pointless since he is a teacher. and although i understand you being hesitant at the choice of italian vs. french, in baroque opera i'd have no qualm in chosing. for all i care, we can lose all the vivaldi manuscripts again in exchange for more operas along the line of roland and whatever other lully, charpentier, couperin and rameau is out there.

Charles T. Downey said...

Vivaldi perhaps. But not Monteverdi. Agreed, about Loup. It must be quite an experience to study with him.