Opening the Oslo Church Music Festival this past Friday was excerpts of the French Baroque composer André Campra’s opéra-ballet L’Europe galante. While the piece itself included some very charming music and entertaining dances, the performances were underwhelming, not even presenting the piece in full. French Baroque opera is a rarity at the best of times in Oslo, and Friday’s performance felt like something of a disappointment.

Emmanuelle de Negri © Stéphane Lariven
Emmanuelle de Negri
© Stéphane Lariven

André Campra was a French composer of sacred music and operas, occupying the interim between Lully and Rameau. He was also the founder of the genre opéra-ballet, a collection of self-contained acts loosely based on the same theme. The 1697 L’Europe galante is the first of the genre, laying the groundwork for later pieces, most notably Rameau’s Les Indes galantes almost 40 years later. The piece consists of a prologue and four acts, each with their own story, but all on the same subject: love. The premise is that the son of the goddess Venus, Cupid, has all of Europe adoring him, much to the dismay of Discordia, the goddess of hate. What follows is four tales of the power of love from France, Italy, Spain and Turkey.

Perhaps the main problem of the evening was the fact that the piece was not presented in full. Much was made of the piece’s origins as a sort of musical peace treaty, written as it was just after the Treaty of Ryswick, which ended the Nine Years’ War. It shows scenes of love and peace in countries on both sides of the conflict. The decision only to present selected excerpts meant that no plot could actually be discerned, characters often singing about other characters that would never be introduced; it was simply presented as a collection of recitatives, arias and dances. There was also the rather puzzling decision of programming this, a secular opéra-ballet, to open a church music festival.

The singing was competent, but on the plain side. French Baroque opera relies heavily on the use of delicate ornamentation, agréments, especially at the end of phrases to signify or slightly delay a cadence. The singers, growing in expressivity as the opera went along, seemed reluctant to ornament the vocal line, not even with the slightest appoggiatura. The fact that none of them seemed to possess a trill did not help.

Soprano Maartje Rammeloo was well suited both to lamenting as the French Doris and Turkish Zäide, and the triumphant, rather gloating Vénus. Her laments, especially the one as Doris, were wonderfully expressive, even though she could have been slightly more liberal with her use of straight tone. Emmanuelle de Negri, stepping in for an indisposed Hana Blaziková, impressed with the range of her four roles, an ever more vengeful La Discorde, her sorrowful resignation of love and men as the French Céphise, and the two splashes of local colour that were the Spanish Woman and Italian Masked Woman. Her two arias as the Masked Woman were both parodies of Italian da capo arias, sung in Italian, no less, a great showcase for some very accomplished coloratura singing.

The haute-contre Reinoud van Mechelen, wrongly classified in the programme notes as a countertenor, sang his two roles with an ardent, light voice, but he struggled somewhat with the intonation in the Spanish act as Dom Pedro. Lisandro Abadie only sang a single excerpt from the role of the Spanish Dom Carlos, a solemn aria about the night, showcasing some very impressive low notes. The excerpt was also encored at the end of the concert, giving him at least a little more to sing.

The orchestra playing, like the singing, was generally competent, and thankfully more ornamented than the latter. Still, there were a few issues, most notably that the characteristic notes inégales weren’t always equally inégal. Sempé’s eccentric method of conducting, more flailing than time-keeping, surely cannot have made matters much better. Sempé opted for generally quick tempi for the slow to medium tempo dances, taking especially the menuets at quite a lick. In comparison, many of the fast dances seemed rather on the slow side, but still offered many delights, like the French act Riagudons, which featured some very athletic oboe and bassoon writing. After its première, L’Europe galante was praised for its many charming dances, and it was easy to hear why.

While the music was enjoyable, the playing and singing were something of a disappointment. With so little French Baroque music being performed in Oslo, presenting this seminal piece of French opera as a ‘best-of’ compilation felt like a missed opportunity.