Arts & Events

William Christie and Les Arts Florissants Perform Charpentier and Purcell

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday November 17, 2017 - 03:01:00 PM

If you search in the catalogues of classical recordings under Marc-Antoine Chapentier, you will find that William Christie’s ensemble Les Arts Florissants gets highest marks for their recordings of this 17th century French composer’s output, both the sacred works and the operas. Often, Christie’s group is the only one to have recorded these works. In short, William Christie has almost single-handedly resurrected Marc-Antoine Charpentier from oblivion, even taking the name of his group Les Arts Florissants from a musical idyll of that title by Charpentier. So how appropriate it is that for this visit to Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall on November 9 under the auspices of Cal Performances, William Christie led off the program with Charpentier’s Actéon, a tragédie en musique in the style of Lully, Charpentier’s illustrious predecessor at the court of Louis XIV at Versailles? Actéon recounts the Greek myth of a great Theban hunter named Actéon who chanced to glimpse Artemis (Diana in Charpentier’s version) bathing nude in a spring with her company of nymphs, and as punishment was transformed into a stag and torn to pieces by his own hunting hounds.  

The action of Actéon takes place in six scenes. First is a hunting chorus for Actéon and his men, followed by an instrumental air. Actéon is robustly sung by tenor Reinoud Van Mechelen. The second scene depicts Diana and her nymphs dancing beside a spring and bathing in the waters. Diana is sung by the bright-voiced soprano Elodie Fonnard. In the third scene, Actéon tires from his exertions, leaves his men to lie down in the shade, and happens upon Diana and her nymphs bathing in the spring. Titillated, he inches forward while attempting to conceal himself. However, he is discovered by Diana, who chastises him. Actéon offers only a weak defense, and Diana punishes him by transforming him into a stag. The fourth scene depicts Actéon glimpsing with horror his reflection in the water. A long instrumental plaint evokes his dismay at his transformation into a stag. Scene five depicts the hunters as they watch Actéon’s hounds close in on a large stag. In a robust men’s chorus they call for Actéon to come watch his hounds at work. The sixth and final scene depicts Juno (Hera in Greek), who is sent by Diana to announce to the hunters the death of Actéon, torn to pieces by his dogs as punishment for invading the sacred privacy of the virginal Diana, goddess of the hunt. Juno was majestically sung by mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre. Supporting roles were admirably sung by sopranos Maud Gnidzaz, Rachel Redmond, and Virginie Thomas, and by baritone Renato Dolcini and countertenor Carlo Vistoli. The singers expressively acted out their roles without benefit of costumes or scenery. William Christie conducted from the harpsichord. 

After intermission William Christie returned to lead his troupe in Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas, which most likely premiered in 1690. Once again, Les Arts Florissants presented this opera, like Charpentier’s Actéon, in a semi-staged performance without costumes or stage sets. At the opera’s outset, Dido, Queen of Carthage, sung by mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre, complains to her confidante Belinda of a grief she dares not speak. Belinda guesses correctly that it involves Dido’s burgeoning attraction to Aeneas, leader of the Trojan refugees who escaped alive from the Greek conquest of Troy. Belinda, sensitively sung by soprano Rachel Redmond, counsels Dido to give way to the gifts of love, and she notes that a union of the Queen of Troy and the leader of the Trojans could hardly offer a more glorious prospect, both for the individuals and for the future of Carthage and its people. When Aeneas steps forward and begs the Queen to look favorably upon his suit, Dido hesitates but soon gives in to her feelings and the many charms of Aeneas, robustly sung by baritone Renato Dolcini. A marriage seems to be in the offing. 

However, evil spirits conspire to harm Dido. A sorceress, sung here by countertenor Carlo Vistoli, instructs his witches to throw every obstacle in Dido’s path. The first witch, brilliantly portrayed by soprano Maud Gnidzaz, is delightfully bewitching as she takes playful joy in derailing Dido’s hopes and plans. The second witch, expressively sung by soprano Virginie Thomas, joins her bewitching sister in calling forth storms to hinder Dido’s plans. A thunder and lightning storm interrupts a hunt prepared in honor of the forthcoming marriage of Dido and Aeneas. (In Les Troyens by Berlioz, this storm gives the lovers an opportunity to spend the night together in a cave where they repair alone to flee the storm. In Purcell, however, the lovers content themselves with the hoped for imminent prospect of marital bliss.) Alas, the sorceress appears to Aeneas and declares that the gods themselves have decreed that Aeneas must sail from Carthage this very night to honor his fate as founder of a new Troy in Rome. “I shall obey,” Aeneas declares, adding, “but how shall I find the words to tell the Queen.” 

The scene now shifts to the harbor, where Aeneas’s men prepare to hoist sails, singing a rollicking song about leaving local nymphs behind. The sorceress and witches gather to sing a demonic laughing chorus, regaling in the plight of Dido and Carthage. When Aeneas does confront Dido, he tells her he can do nothing against the will of the gods. When Dido angrily reacts to this betrayal, Aeneas backtracks and says he’ll forsake the gods and stay because of his love for Dido. She, however, will have none of this, arguing that even his willingness to consider giving up their love is tantamount to a betrayal. “Away!” Away!” she declares. As Dido, Lea Desandre angrily spits out her dismissal of Aeneas.  

Only when Aeneas leaves her presence does she confide to Belinda that “Death must come when he has gone.” When the ships sail out of the port, Dido turns once again to her confidante Belinda. Thus begins the great lament, “When I am laid in earth.” Its moving conclusion rings out poignantly: “Remember me. Remember me. Remember me. But, ah, forget my fate.”  

Throughout both Charpentier’s Actéon and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, William Christie’s instrumentalists in Les Arts Florissants were outstanding. Special mention goes to Thomas Dunford on theorbo and Alix Verzier on cello. Violinists were Emmanuel Resche and Théotine Langlois de Swarte. Sophie de Bardonnèche was on viola, and Pier Luigi Fabretti was on oboe. In both works William Christie conducted from the harpsichord. This double bill was a triumph for William Christie and Les Arts Florissants, and the Berkeley audience responded with tumultuous applause.