The choir of Les Arts Florissants is composed of some of today’s most dynamic singers, who can sing, act, and even appear in two places at the same time. Well, in a matter of speaking. On Tuesday, William Christie’s prestigious ensemble was divided between two venues: the Théâtre de l'Archevêché, for Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, and the Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur d'Aix, for an unforgettable evening of sacred works by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, both for the 2012 Festival d’Aix-en-Provence.

Les Arts Florissants © Guy Vivien
Les Arts Florissants
© Guy Vivien

Just an Italian, Giovanni Battista Lulli, essentially created the French sound in the 17th century, an American, William Christie, revived it in the 20th. Christie frequently appears with some of the world’s most elite artists and ensembles, though is at his best when conducting his own Les Arts Florissants. Founded in 1979, the orchestra and choir contains long-time collaborators as well as young artists who have recently matriculated through his academy, Le Jardin des Voix. Equally at home in the recording studio, concert halls, and the opera house, a more well-rounded group of musicians would be difficult to name . Their exceptional talent, guided by Christie’s extraordinary artistic vision, has brought life into music that otherwise would languish on library shelves, such as the music of Charpentier.

Unlike Lully, his contemporary, Charpentier composed a modest amount out of what we now call “operas.” Still, Charpentier also displays his skills as a dramatist in the literally hundreds of sacred works that he left to us. The two Latin oratorios featured during Tuesday’s concert, Caecilia virgo et martyr and Filius prodigus, are structurally similar to larger tragédies en musique, and under Christie’s baton, proved to be equally satisfying. Christie and Les Arts Florissants recorded both oratorios for Harmonia Mundi in 1999, though the CD features a different bouquet of voices.

Caecilia is in two “acts.” The first narrates how Tiburtius (Reinoud van Mechelen), persuaded by the passion of his wife Caecilia (Rachel Redmond) and his brother Valerianus (Benjamin Alunni), converts to Christianity. In Charpentier’s score, Caecilia is so ardent that one wonders if she wants to give more than just her soul to God! Rachel Redmond’s sweet soprano, not to mention, is enough to send even non-believers into religious ecstasy. In the second part of this mini-drama, Caecilia is persecuted and martyred under the tyrant Amalchus (Arnaud Richard), whose arrogance is portrayed with bombastic vocal writing. Caecilia matches his rhetorical style, and spews ferocious melisma at her opponent. Both Richard and Caecilia flawlessly navigated these difficult passages, which were robustly supported by Béatrice Martin playing harpsichord and organ continuo. A touching, though still almost erotic, cry to Jesus and her husband marks Caecilia’s death. The chœur des fidèles laments the loss of Caecilia, though eventually exalts her name in an exuberant concluding chorus. In these two choruses, Christie showed a remarkable sensitivity to the acoustic of the cathedral, creating subtle dynamic effects that could be produced no where else.

Filius prodigus, the second oratorio on the program, describes the well-known parable of the prodigal son (Reinoud van Mechelen), who, having squandered his inheritance abroad, returns home to his father (Pierre Bessière). Filius contains interesting music infused with Charpentier’s rich harmonic language, which contains certain double-suspensions rarely heard in Lully. The most rewarding part of hearing the piece, however, was having the opportunity to hear van Mechelen’s lithe tenor once more. Bessière performed admirably as the father, though at times his vibrato, slightly on the wide side, impeded his diction.

Between Caecilia and Filius, Christie inserted Charpentier’s Miseremini Mei for eight voices. Brief a due sections performed by sopranos Èlodie Fonnard and Rachel Redmond, both flowers grown in Christie’s Jardin, were some of the highlights of the evening since their timbres blend so beautifully. Both ladies are certainly singers to follow in the years to come as their instruments develop even more.

After the somewhat short concert program came to a close, the audience demanded more music. Christie rewarded ecstatic bravos and a standing ovation with a performance of the “choeur de triomphans” from Charpentier’s David et Jonathas, which he and his ensemble currently perform at the Festival. The chorus sings of “Trompettes et tambours,” and for the staged performance, Christie adds two Baroque trumpets to the pit (though they are not called for in the score): on Tuesday, however, the brass had the night off. Instead, Sébastien Marq worked overtime on the recorder and was absolutely jamming away! This rousing ensemble, which in fact musically and textually recalls the concluding chorus of Caecilia, was still not enough for the audience. For a second encore, Christie previewed the “Agnus Dei” from the Charpentier Mass that he and his musicians perform later this season during the 2012 Festival d’Aix-en-Provence.