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Sandrine Piau at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées

Sandrine Piau, sopranoThere were several concerts that I had hoped to hear during my trip to Paris. One cannot do everything, but I definitely was not going to miss the chance to hear French soprano Sandrine Piau, whose recent CD of Handel arias I so admired, sing live. She was scheduled to sing the role of Elisa in Mozart's early opera Il Rè Pastore (Salzburg, 1775) in a concert performance at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on Monday night. Jean-Louis Validire wrote a preview (Le retour de Sandrine Piau au baroque, March 20) for Le Figaro (my translation):

One cannot speak about Sandrine Piau returning to the Baroque in the sense that she never really left it. Her incursions into operetta, Romantic music, or even contemporary music are nothing but escapades. Wanda in La Grande-duchesse de Gerolstein or Ninette in L'Amour des trois oranges did not manage to detach her from her major field. Still, the young harpist was rather drawn to Bartók, Berg, and Schoenberg. It was her encounter with William Christie, who was teaching vocal performance practice, at the Conservatoire national de Paris who sent the singer into this world, where she has conquered both the audience and critics.

"The Baroque is for me the possibility of taking advantage of the sadness and melancholy inside me. It led me to the 18th-century French music, for which I had neither love at first sight or vocal enthusiasm," she admits. It was with Christophe Rousset that she would undertake the intellectual work that would lead to the discovery of the possibilities offered by Handel's operas. "I did not want to be limited to the coloratura roles of the traditional repertoire, to which I did not relate psychologically. In Baroque opera, the interplay of voices and characters give, in addition, a great liberty." [...]

Mozart is like her old friend, since she has already sung in The Magic Flute and The Abduction from the Seraglio, but "there are not many roles for me, besides Pamina, in the Da Ponte trilogy," she states, even though she has twice been offered Donna Anna. That's a project that might happen one day if certain conditions, notably the use of old instruments and ideas, as well as a vocal casting, in accordance with her convictions are brought together. For authenticity remains one of her demands, even if she is still very pragmatic, notably about the problems of tuning. "Twenty years ago with Christie, A was at 415. Now, we have organs tuned at 392, which makes me very comfortable especially in Les Leçons de ténèbres. But we should not forget that what was historic was freedom. It's a mistake to fix rules in stone without taking account of the place where you are singing. In Mozart, in my opinion, the ideal is 430," she says.
From Jean-Louis Validire, La fraîcheur du jeune Mozart (Le Figaro, March 23):

As the interpreter of Elisa, who wants to join her destiny to that of the shepherd Aminta -- who does not know yet, as the work's title indicates, that he is in fact the king of Sidon liberated by Alexander from Strato's tyranny -- Sandrine Piau is at the height of her career, agile in melismatic passages, with a projection comfortable in the character's palette. Aminta, a role originally created by the castrato Tommaso Consoli, is entrusted in this version to Céline Ricci, less comfortable than she promised to be. On the other hand, the English tenor Paul Agnew sang Alexander with a beautiful diction and delicate timbre. He gave him all the majesty he could, based on what the librettist, Metastasio, allowed.

Sophie Karthäuser made a pleasant Tamiri, the tyrant's daugther who disguises herself as a shepherd to escape from Alexander, from whom she wrongly fears vengeance. Tenor Sébastien Droy completed the group in this concert version by portraying Agenore, the emperor's counselor, who is in love with Tamiri. Metastasio classically opposed the virtues of rural life to those of the city and exalted the goodness of Alexander who, despite the blindness that characterizes leaders, winds up by matching up each one with his beloved in the happiness of a very beautiful final ensemble, whose sounds were perfectly rendered by the singers.

The Orchestre des Folies Françoises, directed by violinist Patrick Cohën-Akenine, gave much freshness to this score, contemporary with the composer's violin concertos. The old flutes of this ensemble dedicated to Baroque music, who play on early instruments, were particularly beautiful. As usual, the natural trumpets and horns did what they could not to transform the thunder that accompanies Alexander's arrival into a pétard mouillé [wet firecracker], to the great pleasure of lovers of authentic instruments.
The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées hosts the best sequence of musical events -- staged operas and ones in concert versions, chamber music, symphonic music, recitals -- in Paris. As I learned, you can buy rather inexpensive tickets -- senior citizens and students can wait until the last half-hour before curtain and get most seats at half-price, too -- but those inexpensive seats are small, uncomfortable, and without leg room. Where I sat on Monday night, in the back row of the second tier, I could hear very well and had a moderate enough view of the musicians. No seat is terribly far from the stage, and just about every seat as far as I could see was filled, and in this auditorium, that means that people are fairly well piled on top of one another. The attraction of this performance -- Sandrine Piau -- became clear when a voice came on the loudspeaker just before curtain: "Madame Sandrine Piau is the victim of a nasty cold." An exasperated groan was audible from the audience, but when the speaker continued, "But in order to enable this performance and recording to continue, she has agreed to sing." The audience emitted an even louder sigh of relief, none louder and more relieved than yours truly.

Pietro Metastasio wrote this very popular libretto in 1751, for a private performance to celebrate the birthday of the Empress Maria Theresa at Schönbrunn Palace, in which her children played the leading roles. He adapted the story from an episode in the history of Alexander the Great's conquest of Phoenicia, not as the title character might make us think, from the famous pastoral by Torquato Tasso, Aminta (or in italiano, from 1581). When the son of Empress Maria Theresa, Archduke Maximilian Franz, visited Salzburg, Mozart took up this libretto for a performance in the Archduke's honor in the Archbishop's palace. Mozart and his father had seen a performance, a few years before this at the Haymarket in London, of Felice Giardini's opera based on Metastasio's text, which may have given him the idea to set it. A writer in Salzburg, Gianbattista Varesco, trimmed down Metastasio's libretto for Mozart.

We've been hearing a lot of Mozart lately (Lucio Silla in Santa Fe last summer, Marriage of Figaro in Paris this week, Così Fan Tutte and Abduction from the Seraglio back in Washington, and La Clemenza di Tito coming up soon), but I welcomed the chance to hear Il Rè Pastore again. Mozart was only 19 when he composed it, and while it has some Baroque characteristics (the young man's first visit to Mannheim was not until 1777), you can hear definite signs of what we cherish in Mozart's mature operas.

Mozart, Il Re Pastore, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, March 20, 2006The Orchestre des Folies Françoises does not have the same reputation outside of France as some other early music ensembles, but it gave a sound performance. All players stand while playing, and there is no conductor, only cues given by music director Patrick Cohën-Akenine, who is also lead violin. For the most part, this arrangement worked, although there were a few moments where a non-playing conductor could have kept the ensemble together. They sounded quite good, especially the strings and woodwinds, and in some cases the brass -- not all, due to the notoriously unpredictable nature of those instruments.

The first act ends with an excellent duet between Piau's Elisa and Aminta, sung by mezzo-soprano Céline Ricci, whose rich, dark voice and animated demeanor reminded a little of Cecilia Bartoli, although she had some trouble at the top of the part's range. A remarkable moment of acting occurred just before that duet, when Aminta asks, "È sogno?" (Is this a dream?), and Elisa replies, "Ah no," with the same look of bemused incredulity. Paul Agnew sang brilliantly as Alessandro, negotiating the difficult runs especially with grace, although the voice is on the dark side and the vibrato a little excessive. Sophie Karthäuser sang well as Tamiri, particularly in her vengeance aria in Act II ("Se tu di me fai dono"), as did Sébastien Droy as Agenore.

The closing quintet, a rather extended ensemble involving all of the characters, is neither as fully developed nor as individually characterized as the later examples in Mozart's operas. For much of it, a pair of characters sing together in homophony, but there are moments of contrapuntal definition and simultaneous characterization. In particular, one aspect stood out as I listened, a phrase that gets repeated several times: "No, che ad amore un cor / Resistere non sa" (No, there is no heart / that can resist love). It sums up the joy with which Mozart infused this finale, a happy confidence in the power of love to conquer all. It is still infectious.

After additional performances on March 23 in Orléans and on March 25 in Avignon, the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées concert will be broadcast on France-Musiques this Wednesday, March 29, 8 pm.

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