In a city where period-instrument concerts are legion, performances by William Christie and his excellent ensemble Les Arts Florissants remain very special events, if only because their original programming brings a breath of fresh air in a country where, still too often, baroque music isn’t taken very seriously if it isn’t Bach. This Saturday’s programme that brought us French galant arias and pieces by Rameau and his contemporaries certainly was very refreshing. Of the chosen pieces, I was only familiar with Rameau’s Dardanus and Fêtes d’Hébé and I therefore embarked on an enjoyable afternoon stroll into this garden of Mr Rameau to discover works by Montéclair, Dauvergne, Campra and others.

© Philippe Delval
© Philippe Delval

The six soloists were the saplings of the 6th edition of “Le Jardin des Voix”, an academy for young singers – or should I say greenhouse – created by Christie and tenor Paul Agnew in 2002. This “garden” aims at nurturing singing talent with a focus on 17th and 18th century music, and exposing young singers to an international public by giving them the opportunity to perform on major stages all around the world. Sonya Yoncheva, Christophe Dumaux, Judith van Wanroij and Xavier Sabata, amongst others, were participants in previous years.

The concert’s tone was set after the soloists, in evening dress and standing neatly in a row at the front of the podium during the short overture (from Montéclair’s Jephté), demonstrably got rid of their music stands and threw their scores in the air to start engaging into a lively semi-staged performance. From then on, the different pieces were arranged into an uninterrupted succession cleverly arranged by co-directors Paul Agnew and Sophie Daneman to resemble a pasticcio. Dynamics were further enhanced by the fact that, apart from being given the opportunity to shine in a few arias each, all soloists also sang in choruses, duets, trios etc… with all imaginable combination of voices. Arguably those ensemble pieces where the highlights of the performance.

Moods on the podium shifted from desire to despair, from hilarity to even drunkenness. Cast as the drunkard was the French basse Cyril Constanzo, who gave a memorable performance in a scene that included pieces from Dauvergne’s La Vénitienne and Gluck’s L’ivrogne corrigé, shortly interrupted to great effect by a canon by Rameau Ah, loin de rire. Daniela Skorka from Israel has a lovely bright soprano and displayed precise ornamentations in her short aria from Rameau’s Les fêtes d’Hébé but I found her somewhat lacking character in her aria from Hercule mourrant by Dauvergne. On the contrary, I found the warm baritone of Victor Sicard arresting in Anténor’s aria “Monstre affreux, monstre redoutable” from Rameau’s Dardanus, in which the hero tell the hideous monster how he finds love a far more dangerous enemy. I loved American tenor Zachary Wilder’s voice. His is a clear, high tenor, very flexible as he demonstrated in his short aria from Dardanus. With his clear diction in the French language, he sounds perfect for the repertoire of French haute-contre.

The most beautiful blooms of this garden were the two mezzos, each for different reasons. Benedetta Mazzucato from Italy had the edge in terms of pure vocal qualities : a well-projected, round and full mezzo-soprano. She sang “Quels doux concerts” from Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie with great pathos and I found that her velvety sound contrasted beautifully with Mr Wilder’s clear tenor in their two duets by Rameau. But it is mezzo-soprano Emilie Renard (UK) who deservedly got the loudest applause from the public for her hilarious yet very stylish interpretation of a capricious singer in the humorous cantate “Rien du tout” by De Grandval.

****1