Spring has sprung and the arts flourish at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Earlier this week, William Christie and his superb ensemble Les Arts Florissants revived Charpentier’s David et Jonathas, first produced at the 2012 Festival d’Aix-en-Provence (review here). Friday, Christie displayed a fresh bouquet of voices cultivated with care in his Jardin des Voix – one of most prestigious academies for young singers today. The program featured gallant airs and ensembles from 18th-century France, cleverly staged by Sophie Daneman and Paul Agnew.

William Christie © Dennis Rouvre
William Christie
© Dennis Rouvre

Founded in 2001, the Jardin des Voix is one of the most splendid (and important) things Christie has grown in his decades-long career. The name of the program derives from the important relationship between gardens and music in the 17th and 18th centuries. Today, we scurry to opera houses and concert halls to hear arias, though centuries ago, “art music” thrived in all spaces including out-of-doors. For example, Lully’s Alceste was performed en plein air on a temporary stage flanked by orange trees in the marble court of the Château de Versailles – not under the confines of the proscenium. Impressively, Christie has created his own petit palais in western France where audiences can enjoy music while strolling through formal gardens.

The Jardin des Voix, then, acts as a sort of musical greenhouse of the finest young specimens from around the world, which are gathered together and given ideal growing conditions with the hope that they will continue to blossom after matriculating through the program. In its sixth edition, the Jardin has six members: Dabueka Skorka, soprano (Israel); Emilie Renard, mezzo-soprano (UK), Benedetta Mazzucato, mezzo-soprano (Italy); Zachary Wilder, tenor (US); Victor Sciard, baritone (France); Cyril Costanzo, bass (France).

The singers entered ceremoniously during the overture, taking their places behind six black music stands where they stood with serious scowls until one singer playfully tossed her music into the air, signaling to the others that they could do away with the park-and-bark concert format. Instead, they offered a playful pastiche of opera scenes, cantatas, canons and airs, all dovetailing together to create an enchanting, albeit loose, narrative. Agnew and Daneman curated an evening in which each of the singers of the Jardin were featured alone, as well as in nearly every possible arrangement with the other voices on stage in works for two, three, four, five and six voices – all charmingly acted.

One of the most exquisite buds in the 2013 Jardin is most certainly mezzo-soprano Emilie Renard. She delighted audiences with her performance of excerpts from the canatata “Rien du tout” by Nicolas Racot de Grandval, known primarily for his work writing and performing comedies. In “Rien du tout”, there is no shortage of wit; the singer laments that she must sing for her audience and satirizes the conventions of tragédie-lyrique. Eventually, the singer decides to follow her own bon goût and ignore the fickle taste of her audience. In this tour-de-force cantata of contrasting musical and emotional states, Renard matched solid vocal technique with sensitive dramatic timing.

Cyril Costanzo was excellent in the scene he performed from Antoine Dauvergne's comédie-ballet, La Vénitienne, during which the character Zerbin has had a bit too much to drink. In the air “Pour braver les perils”, the pit cleverly matched the affect of the singer at the height of his intoxication by exaggerating slurs in the violins. By the end of the scene, Zerbin is so inebriated that he begins to fall asleep, singing a beautiful air du sommeil. Costanzo played a convincing drunk without sacrificing sensibilité for comic effect.

Victor Sicard earned bravos for his performance of “Monstre affreux”, from Rameau’s Dardanus, and was an engaging Silvandre in the excerpts from André Campra’s rarely staged opéra-ballet L’Europe galante.

Benedetta Mazzucato’s singing was consistent throughout the evening. In the arietta “Fuis, porte ailleurs tes fureurs” from Rameau’s Les fêtes d’Hébé, she executed the fioritura with grace and precision. She was, however, less dramatically persuasive than some of her colleagues. For example, mezzo-soprano Daniela Skorka did not sound as if she was in optimum vocal health, though her dramatic delivery of “Quels doux concerts” from Hippolyte et Aricie was strong nonetheless. Likewise, tenor Zachary Wilder, despite clear technical gifts, tended to strain at the top of his register. Regardless, I would love to hear them both again since voices are, after all, the most fragile of instruments and should not be dismissed upon one hearing alone, just as even the most beautiful blooms look and smell different each day.

Perhaps the biggest triumph of the evening was the introduction of repertoire new to US audiences, since some audiences are still largely unfamiliar with composers like Rameau and Montéclair. Perhaps after experiencing how exciting this repertoire is and can be, more American singers and music directors will eschew their prejudices about early French repertoire and any unfounded doubts that audiences can appreciate this glorious music.

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