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Music, the Only Innocent Pleasure

Opera Lafayette’s 15th anniversary season opened to a full house at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, with a program featuring the collaboration of Charpentier and Molière. Opera Lafayette Artistic Director Ryan Brown reminded the audience in his concise spoken introduction that music of the French Baroque equally encompasses both the “high and low brow,” a goal to which Monday evening’s program aspired. Following a falling-out with Lully, Molière, not long before his untimely death, began working with Charpentier to produce “comédies-ballets,” three scenes of which comprised the first half of the program.

The Ouverture to Le Sicilien, ou l’amour peintre (1695 version) showed off Opera Lafayette’s crack band of three standing violin players (including Brown) and continuo, who approached notes inégales rhythms gently and relished Charpentier’s calculated dissonance. In a tuxedo, La Peinture (tenor Tony Boutté) expressively sang and cried to his love under her locked window. Her old Guardian (François Loup) soon interrupted, with great vocal presence in the hall, encouraging him to sing major scales instead of minor. The Guardian continued to dash La Peinture’s hopes by referring to the lady as a “deceitful tigress,” and the scene quickly devolved into cat hisses from both gentlemen as they ran offstage.

Tenor Karim Sulayman was most animated in the wife-bashing (“hellish follies…”) scene from La Comtesse d’Escarbagnas. His use of vibrato as a tool for ornamentation instead of as a given was most stylish. Choreographer Catherine Turocy had the gentlemen playing cards during a brief Menuet movement. Dramatic actions onstage were always subtly subservient to the music -- well, that is, until the three gentlemen in Le Mariage forcé were flitting around singing on nonsense syllables, all rhyming with “pantalon,” followed by vocal imitations of the dogs, cats, and nightingales of Arcadia. Musical and dramatic events swiftly unfolded in this program of seventy minutes.

Following a brief pause for retuning and the addition of two Baroque flutes, the “high brow” half of the evening began with the five lightly staged scenes of Charpentier’s chamber opera Les Arts Florissants. Although the libretto is by an anonymous author, a memorable quote quite fitting of Molière proclaimed music the “delight of the spirit, the only innocent pleasure.” La Musique (soprano Ah Hong, heard two years ago in Opera Vivente’s production of Alcina) sang her invitation (“let my divine harmony fill your hearts”) with a lovingly relaxed agility. The chorus portrayed its roles of warriors and furies, depending on the scene, with orchestral interludes elegantly danced or pantomimed by Caroline Copeland. Soloists representing poetry (Stacey Mastrian), architecture (Monica Reinagel), discord (William Sharp), and war (François Loup) expounded the virtues of their respective embodiments.

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Soprano Nathalie Paulin’s sublime portrayal of peace (“Even the hardest warriors shall prefer peace to fighting…”) was underscored by a blissful continuo combination of theorbo, some sort of early guitar, harpsichord, and mellifluously played gamba. Brown conducted the second half of the program most effectively, but he might consider minimizing his presence: his hands mirrored each other 95% of the time, while lateral dance-like motions were somewhat distracting to the audience and perhaps confusing to those onstage trying to focus on a moving target. The outstanding quality of Opera Lafayette’s soloists combined with meticulous preparation made for a remarkable evening in a venue much more appropriate than some past programs in the drafty atrium of La Maison Française.

Mark your calendars -- in celebration of their 15th season, all tickets to Opera Lafayette’s next performances, of Gluck's Armide (February 1 in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall and February 3 at Rose Hall in New York), will be only $15.

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