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In the genial environs of Memorial Hall on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill, Les Arts Florissants presented a program entitled "Serious Airs and Drinking Songs," featuring works by 17th century French composers Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Étienne Moulinié, Michel Lambert and Sébastien Le Camus.
Les Arts Florissants is a performance ensemble specializing in Baroque music, much of which has not been heard for hundreds of years. They were formed in 1979 under the leadership of William Christe. Ever since their 1986-87 production of Jean-Baptiste Lully's opera Atys (last heard in 1753), international acclaim has been heaped upon them for their unique and treasured achievements. The list of their recording triumphs is nearly as long as your arm. The ensemble derived its name from the 1685 opera by Marc-Antoine Charpentier.
Les Arts has been an artist in residence at the Philharmonie de Paris since 2015 with William Christe as the director and harpsichordist. The other current performing personnel are Emmanuelle de Negri, soprano, Anna Reinhold, alto, Reinoud van Mechelen, tenor, Cyril Auvity, baritone, and Lisandro Abadie, bass, with Florence Malgoire & Sue-Ying Koang, violins, Myriam Rignol, viola da gamba, Thomas Dunford, theorbo. Many of the past members of the ensemble have gone on to significant successes of their own; the likes of Marc Minkowski and Hervé Niquet, for example.
The program began, typically enough, with the instrumentalists playing the overture to Charpentier's Petite pastorale, H.479. Then the singers brought out some basic set elements: a coatrack, a table, a couple of chairs. They interacted with one another through gestures, facial expressions and actions. So, as made clear in the program notes excellently written by Rick Jones, we were to be entertained not just with singing and playing, but with drama as well.
Les Arts Florissants was a troupe of actors rehearsing in Italian a pastoral by Charpentier for the French court. It involved the romantic entanglements of three shepherds and three shepherdesses. Between scenes, the performers reverted to their ordinary 17th century lives as an arguing, bickering, flirting troupe singing their thoughts and feelings through a selection of air – essentially a play within a play. The staging was devised by soprano de Negri.
The troupe sang through scenes 1 and 2 of the pastoral, which involved a debate between the first and second tenors as to which was the better singer. Then they stepped out of the pastoral mode and into their 17th century lives, singing Moulinié's four-voice "Amis, enivrons-nous du vin d'Espagne en France." (Friends, let's get drunk with the wine of Spain in France.) The translations of the song texts were not printed in the program (a useless gesture in a darkened theater) but were projected on a screen above the stage, a preferable solution.
The production proceeded with excerpts from Charpentier's Pastoraletta 1a H.492, interspersed with airs by Lambert, Moulinié and Le Camus.
The singing was remarkable, characterized by marvelously shaped phrasing, dead center pitch and extraordinary dynamic control. Particularly impressive was the trio of men singing Lambert's "Sans murmurer." Blend, balance and projection of extreme pianissimo was remarkable. Also impressive was the exquisite folding together of counterpoint passages as in Lambert's "Vous avez trop d'appas" and Moulinié's "Guillot est mon amy."
The charming soprano duet, "Charmantes fleurs, naissez" by Charpentier was sung by the two women sitting on the edge of the stage. The singers summoned birds, imitated by twin flutes, here provided by two of the men whistling with effective skill. Another notable moment was Abadie's rendition of Moulinié's "Enfin la beauté que j'adore" It ended with a masterful demonstration of vocal control and the fine line where pianissimo singing becomes silence.
In scene two of the Pastoraletta, the shepherd Lynco is dealing with his confusion about love. The chorus offers encouragement. Then after a brief silence, the howl of a wolf is heard (here provided most effectively by Christe.) Phyllis' favorite sheep has been carried off by a wolf. Lynco alerts his companions who take off to save the abducted lamb singing in driving, rhythmic tones "die, die, the beast must die."
One of the compellingly entertaining aspects of the performance was to watch Christe when he was not playing the harpsichord. He watched the performance with keen attention, reacting to the stage action and smiling at the beauty and excellence of the singing.
The instrumentalists were each a paradigm of professional competence. A standout was the theorboist, Thomas Dunford who did a yeoman's job playing continuo passages and accompaniment passages marvelously captivating the lute capabilities of his instrument.
There was a feeling in Memorial Auditorium of intense audience participation. The absolute quiet, the easy laughter, the resistance to interrupt the performance with applause, even after sensational numbers, until the end of the act – all these things said this effective, delightful performance had the audience entranced. At the end, the audience was reluctant to let them go recalling them for two reprises. Alas, all things come to an end, but good things like this linger in a jaunty footstep, a whistled tune, or a feeling that all is good in the world, at least for a while.