Australia has been a good place to hear some of the world's leading early music ensembles recently: first the Canadian Baroque orchestra Tafelmusik, followed by their Parisian counterparts, Les Arts Florissants. Both orchestras, as it happens, were founded in 1979, and while their Sydney programmes were very different indeed, both groups chose to weave together short pieces and selections from larger works to illustrate some theme or create a sense of narrative. While this approach runs the danger of appearing bitty, especially for contemporary audiences used to lengthy symphonic spans and performances of complete works, the calibre of the performers and skilful programming made this a non-issue in the case of Les Arts Florissants.

While the theme of love was probably the main anchoring point in the programme, there was an emphatic emotional difference between how it was treated in both halves: the first was largely serious, while the second was much more comedic. Moreover, the two parts explored different repertoire: the first took music from the late Renaissance to the end of the Baroque, while the second featured later 18th century figures including Haydn and Mozart. This sense of underlying historical progression continued into the first encore, the winsome ‘Siete voi?’ sextet from Rossini’s La Cenerentola

William Christie has form in assembling music from different sources: his encyclopaedic knowledge of the early music repertory informed many of the choices in the Met Opera’s delightful Baroque pastiche opera The Enchanted Island, which he also conducted. The demands in this concert were different, but this listener appreciated the careful attention to tonal planning (i.e. one work followed another in a way which created a convincing progression of keys).

More obvious, perhaps, was the sense of emotional and dramatic balance which was created: the perky playfulness of the opening numbers shaded into Stradella’s courtly paean to love, and from there a short recitative led to the love-lorn madness of Orlando, as set by both Handel and Vivaldi. Separating the latter two operatic excerpts was a gorgeous madrigal by de Wert lamenting the loss of love. In the second half, a serious solo cantata by Haydn’s teacher Porpora provided a counterbalance to the prevailing lightness of tone, and also allowed the accomplished countertenor Carlo Vistoli a moment to shine (the castrato more typically would have been used in serious than in comic opera in this period).

At various points, the staged quality of the program was brought to the fore for humorous effect: in the opening Banchieri madrigal, the singers volunteered for their roles, and the second half saw extracts from meta-operas (operas about the process of putting on opera) by Cimarosa and Sarro, complete with quarrelling divas and put-upon impressarios. In the extract from his comic intermezzo, Sarro took obvious pot-shots at other aspects of contemporaneous opera seria: one character dismisses the libretto as “not intended to be understood. It’s refined in taste, no one pays heed to it.” There was also a splendid comparison of the beloved to a “fiery salamander” in the “Etna” of whose eyes the singer wishes to be consumed, a parody of the conventional 'simile aria' illustrated several times in the first half.

While the instrumentalists and vocalists complemented each other well, visually the Jardin des Voix dominated throughout. This hand-picked group of young singers moved freely around the front of the stage, making limited but effective use of gesture. Needless to say, the tuning and ensemble were above criticism, with the de Wert madrigal a particularly beautiful concerted number. Baritone Renato Dolci delivered a terrifically involved rendition of the mad Orlando’s aria “Ah sleale, ah spergiura” by Vivaldi. The contrast to Handel’s gorgeous “Lascia la spina” (reused by the composer for ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ in Rinaldo) couldn’t have been greater. This last-named aria was sung by the silvery-toned soprano Lucía Martin-Carton, who added a few chaste ornaments in the repeat.

Mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre demonstrated strong coloratura skills in her jealousy aria by Vivaldi. Nicholas Scott possessed a remarkably free and unfussy tenor voice, although his “Care pupille” was a shade less compelling than some of the other items on the programme. John Taylor Ward got to mock the rest of the lovesick cast in his Stradella aria, and demonstrated some good comic skills. The orchestra offered delights throughout, from the amazingly edgy bass sound in the opening Stradella Sinfonia, to the dancing lilt in the Stradella aria “La beltà d’un vago viso”. Marshalled by the still dapper Christie, the players and singers dovetailed faultlessly, and largely surmounted the challenges of the space.