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Critic’s Notebook: Christophe Rousset & Atys opens Resonanzen Festival in Vienna

Also reviewed for DiePresse: Bei den „Resonanzen“ geht abends die Sonne auf

A large dose of deligthfully elegant French baqroque from Les Talens Lyriques and Christophe Rousset to open the Vienna Konzerthaus' "Resonanzen" Festival. Perhaps almost too much of a good thing?

“Resonanzen” is the name of the annual early music festival of the Vienna Konzerthaus – now in its 32nd season. Each year has to have a motto, of course, to which the concerts are then most tenuously related. This year’s is: “The Planets”, which spans nine concerts -- the Sun and eight planets (no love for Pluto here, either) – and plenty events, movies, exhibitions (including a sort of petting zoo for old instruments).

The opening concert – “Sun” – was given to Les Talens Lyriques and Christophe Rousset, ionarts-favorites in performance and on record alike. They brought with them Lully’s Atys, which befits the sun-title, given that this “tragédie en musique” is also known as “the King’s opera” for having so entertained Louis XIV… the “Sun King”.

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W.Christie, Les Arts Florissants
Harmonia Mundi

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C.Rousset, Les Talens Lyriques
Chateau de Versailles Spectacles

I’m sure it was grand entertainment, but then Louis XIV would have had the benefit of experiencing the whole thing in a presumably lavish staging, with the accompanying ballet. And a buffet. Both would have nice on this occasion, too, because without either, Atys can get a bit long. That’s not particularly surprising, really, because Lully didn’t just readily use the formulaic musical language of his time, he created many of those formulas. And he runs with them. Further: Although there’s drama near the end of this “tragédie en musique”, most of the rest is a pastoral idyll that murmurs along like the gently flowing rivulets described in the libretto of Lully-regular, Philippe Quinault: “Flow, murmur, ye clear streams / only the sound of waters / lulls the sweetness of such delightful silence.” Try not falling asleep to that!

Everything in this opera has a tendency to become lovely, sweet, cloying. That may be part of the point, but I couldn’t help to wish for Rousset and Les Talens to really kick it up a notch. To be just a wee bit less tasteful, less elegant, less refined, less excellent. He didn’t have to go full-Pluhar. But maybe a little bit in that direction. Alas, to no avail. A little thunder in the nightmare-scene just wasn’t enough for nearly three hours of rather early French baroque. (Handel and Bach weren’t even a glimmer in their parents’ eyes, when the work was premiered in 1677 – at the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, before the aforementioned excited King and an allegedly bored Parisian audience.)

Perhaps the hall was also a little big for the venture? The lack of immediacy of the accurate, pliable, but not very explosive orchestra, and the thin sound from Christophe Rousset’s own harpsichord suggested as much. The Chœur de Chambre de Namur, meanwhile, was not to be blamed: The fairly small, 21-headed, ensemble, had verve and diligence in spades and offered the greatest contrast when they entered the fray. The soloists, largely young and light-voiced, were equally fine – a little light on character but with considerable enthusiasm, led by Reinoud Van Mechelen’s experienced, cor-anglais-like tenor as Atys. Soprano Gwendoline Blondeel (Iris, Doris), too, stood out, for her round soprano voice with alto-undertones, a little unstable at first and then ever more dramatic and on-point.

It was William Christie who unearthed this work with his performances in the mid-80s and brought it back to the specialist conscience. His subsequent recording, long the only game in town, has become something of a something classic. And just this year, Christophe Rousset has added his own recording to the catalogue (the third, not counting DVDs). There’s a neat link between the two: Rousset was on second clavecin for Bill Christie, on the first recording, 37 years ago.

Photo © Manuel Chemineau

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