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S & H International Opera Review

Spotlight on Lully: Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris (FC)



A musical celebration of Jean-Baptiste Lully, Louis XIV’s favorite composer, graced the stage of the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris last week. Called Les Divertissements de Versailles, it was meant to recreate a taste of a gala musical evening at the court of the Sun King. Devised by conductor William Christie and performed by his orchestra and chorus, Les Arts Florrisants, it is a selection of key scenes from Lully’s lyric works. Semi-staged, with costumes and dancers, by the Peniche Opera’s Mireille Larroche, it was an impressive display of Lully’s enduring musical value.

On the face of it, it sounds like the type of program done a few decades ago that assumes the audience is just making the acquaintance of the composer. But more than a few in the sophisticated audience at the first night were asking whether this was necessary: with the strong assemblage of talent on stage, why not just perform a complete opera?

Maybe Christie is a victim of his own success. Last year, celebrating his 20th year as the founder and conductor of Les Arts Florissants, he was appropriately honored for leading the French music scene in the rediscovery of their Baroque musical heritage. His single-handed rescue of Marc-Antoine Charpentier from the musical dustbin and his acclaimed productions and widely sold recordings of Lully, Desmarest and Rameau, among others, has made him among the best known interpreter of his period. He inspired a generation of musicians and singers and historically informed performance became commonplace and even mainstream in France.

Now, hardly a week goes by in Paris without a Baroque original instrument performance of high quality on some stage or other. A group of young conductors like Marc Minkowski, the Belgian counter-tenor-turned-conductor René Jacobs, Emmanuelle Haïm and Christophe Rousset have all helped to expand the list of available recordings of French Baroque music. Some are branching out to the classical period and beyond (witness Minkowski’s recent forays into the world of Offenbach.)

Christie is keeping focused on the original mission and continues to patiently build audiences for the French Baroque masters. For this evening, he has assembled an impressive array of vocal talent. The popular soprano Sophie Daneman sang arias of several heroines from operas like Le Mariage forcé, Atys and L’Amour médecin. A newcomer, the Israeli soprano Rinat Shaham, made a strong impression with her arias from Armide. There was forceful, if a bit rough-edged, singing from baritone Olivier Lallouette, who, singing his two arias in the title role of Roland, showed that Lully wrote some powerful, almost Verdian, roles for the baritone voice.

Paul Agnew contributed nicely with a clear and focused tenor and the other predominately French vocalists sang with a precise diction and purity of tone so necessary for the music and the texts (by Molière and Quinault). Maestro Christie kept the orchestra textures clear and the music lively and the Choir of Les Arts Florrisants sang with spirit. The costumes, borrowed from the Opéra de Paris and the Center of Baroque Music at Versailles, added to the ambiance but the two ballet dancers remained distinctly earthbound the entire evening.

In April and May, this program will circulate to several cities in France as well as London, Salamanca, Vienna and Leipzig. The program notes also promise a recording of "Great Scenes of Lully" which will be available in association with the Spring tour and is likely containing much of the same music as in these Paris appearances. For those music lovers not yet familiar with Lully, there could be no better introduction.

Frank Cadenhead

Jean-Baptiste Lully, Les divertissements de Versailles, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris, January 11, 14 and 15, 2002


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