Christian Curnyn is one of a small set of British conductors to show a long-term commitment to music of the French Baroque. After a much-praised performance of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Actéon at the Wigmore Hall in 2012, Curnyn and the Early Opera Company returned to play Charpentier’s La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers.
Written and performed in 1686 for the household of Marie de Lorraine, Mademoiselle de Guise, La Descente d’Orphée defies classification. With its secular subject matter, minimal action and small instrumental and vocal forces, it is a sort of pastoral serenata, cantata and opera rolled into one. It was certainly not meant for public performance. With Charpentier’s powerful rival, Jean-Baptiste Lully, in charge of licensing Paris theatre productions, that was never going to happen. This, though, gives La Descente d’Orphée certain artistic advantages. For a start, there is none of the courtly artifice and blatant sycophancy towards the Sun King Louis XVI which characterizes Lully’s Versailles-inspired stage works. And in the privacy of his patron’s home, Charpentier was much freer to express his characters’ emotions with a greater degree of realism and sensitivity.
The action, such as it is, covers the death of Eurydice and Orpheus’s subsequent journey to the underworld to reclaim her. The work ends with their triumphant departure from Pluto’s domain, but does not include Orpheus’s backward glance and Eurydice’s final disappearance. This has led to speculation that Charpentier may have planned a final, unrealised, third act.
The title role was taken by tenor Ed Lyon, who has a firm but lithe tenor voice, well suited to Charpentier’s expressive melodic lines, much of them written in the upper register. This was contrasted by the astonishingly rich and resonant bass of Callum Thorpe as Pluto. He, in turn, was complemented by soprano Sophie Junker as a sympathetic Persephone. Katherine Manley’s Eurydice had nothing to do after the first part of Act I, but she acquitted herself well, particularly when leading a trio of bucolic nymphs (which included countertenor Zachary Wilder).
Charpentier’s exploration of contrasts between the worlds of Elysium and Hades, and between voice parts and ensembles, accounts for the striking trio of the three criminals of the underworld in the second act. Led in song by Ed Lyons’ Orpheus, Wilder, William Berger and Daniel Auchincloss created moving portrayals of Ixion, Tityus and Tantalus. The only quibble during the performance was the slightly blurred French diction.
Curnyn directed his players from the harpsichord with visible zest, shaping phrases with bold gestures, and bringing out some of the finer details of Charpentier’s scoring. The instrumentalists had already proved their mettle at the start of the programme, displaying great skill in Charpentier’s Sonate à Huit, a set of dance-inspired movements for two flutes, two violins, viol, bass violin, theorbo and harpsichord. Reiko Ichise and Emily Ashton shone in the two recitative movements for viol and bass violin respectively.Thomas Dunford on theorbo deserved praise for consistently fine playing, despite his struggles with score pages that refused to turn and a stand that seemed to have a life of its own.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.