The coupling of two Baroque chamber operas, Charpentier's Actéon and Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, proposed by Christophe Rousset and the ensemble Les Talens Lyriques at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, makes sense on several levels. The works were composed only a few years apart: Actéon in 1684 and Dido in 1689. Purcell’s textures often sound typically French. Both librettos are anchored in classical mythology, reiterating the ancient belief that man's fate is at the mercy of the gods' whims. The stories are seen through a Latin lens: Dido's tragic love for the much younger Trojan warrior is narrated in Virgil's Aeneid and Acteon's infelicitous encounter with Diana in Ovid's Metamorphoses. More, the latter event is directly mentioned – "Oft she visits this lone mountain" – by a member of Dido’s retinue at the beginning of the second act of Purcell’s opera.

Les Talens Lyriques and Christophe Rousset © Jacques Verrees
Les Talens Lyriques and Christophe Rousset
© Jacques Verrees

Despite their musical and literary affinities, the two opuses hardly belong to the same level in the musical Pantheon. Like other Charpentier’s secular works, Actéon is a showcase for the composer’s mastery of his métier but musically it is not very exciting. Rules are obeyed, everything is “comme il faut” but there is rarely a true sparkle. On the other side, with its ability to take the listener through a full range of emotions, with its almost Shakespearean balance between heroic tragedy and humor, Dido and Aeneas is a powerful and seductive masterpiece.

Celebrating their 25th anniversary this season, Les Talens Lyriques, led by Christophe Rousset, have for a long time been at the forefront of interpreting Baroque and Classical music on period instruments. The level of cohesion of the entire ensemble, the precision of every instrumental intervention, the ability to balance the overall sound, so that individual voices can be sustained but the color of the orchestral motifs is not lost, were as remarkable during this performance as always. Rousset emphasized with spirit and sensitivity the delicate and elegant dialogue between strings in Charpentier’s “pastorale en musique”. He successfully brought out the full imaginative impact of Purcell’s music, its emotional weight and intensity.

Vivica Genaux © Christian Steiner | Virgin Classics
Vivica Genaux
© Christian Steiner | Virgin Classics
The group of soloists, doubling as members of the chorus, was strong as well in this double bill. Mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, singing the smaller role of Junon in Actéon and then Dido, dominated, as expected, the evening. Displaying exquisite technique, her voice was both powerful and insidious. Each phrase was full of ardor or drawn in pain. Even in a concert version of Purcell’s opera, what came across more than anything else was her total immersion in the psychological depths of the role, emotions visible across her face. As a veritable tragedienne, she passionately travelled from the uncertainties and loneliness of “Ah Belinda” at the start to the inevitable “When I am laid in earth” at the end.

As Actéon, tenor Cyril Auvity had difficulties in his upper register. He sang “Agréable vallon, paisible solitude” with sensitivity and with unconcealed pain Actéon’s own lament describing his transformation into a stag. With a clear, sunny voice, assured in pitch and tone, soprano Daniela Skorka was both Diana, the vengeful goddess and Belinda (Dido’s sister and lady in waiting). She offered a solid rendition of Belinda’s “Pursue thy conquest, love” first act aria. Together with soprano Anat Edri and baritone Yaïr Polishook in the thankless role of Aeneas, offering little opportunities both vocally and dramatically, Skorka was part of a trio of young promising Israeli singers that Christophe Rousset is nurturing. Finally, singing the small part of a sorceress in Dido, baritone Etienne Bazola came close from stealing the show with his penetrating voice and theatrical shenanigans.

The intimate space of Théâtre des Champs-Élysées proved to be an ideal setting for listening to the music of these two Baroque operas.

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