We know little about Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Histoires Sacrées, other that they seem to have been influenced by his visit, in his mid-twenties, to Rome, where he studied with Carissimi. There are over thirty of these brief operatic pieces (one might think of them as ‘costumed cantatas’), for varying forces (ranging from solo introspections, to tableaux involving several characters and chorus) most of them on moral or biblical themes. Ensemble Correspondances’ touring production of three of the Histoires arrived at St John’s on Thursday.
The project’s mastermind, Sébastien Daucé (Ensemble Correspondances’ director), took ‘holy women’ as the theme for the collection. Judith sive Bethulia liberate (the story of Judith and Holofernes), Magdalena lugens (the penitent Magdalene, in her Mary-of-Egypt-influenced persona) and Caecilia virgo et martyr (the tale of St Cecilia’s martyrdom) were linked together by three of Charpentier’s short motets to create a seamless piece of theatre in which singers exchanged roles, moving from narrator to chorus to supporting and lead characters with a slick fluidity.
The performance was outstanding – the ensemble of fourteen instrumentalists providing a canvas full of the rich, textured colour and decorative devices that would be expected from French specialists in the style: elegantly delivered upper-note trills throughout, dark, theorbo-heavy accompagnato for the ‘villains’ (Holofernes in Judith and Almacchius in Caecilia), a deftly executed viola da gamba solo at the opening of the second part of Judith and a yearning, interweaving flute passage for the motet In Odorem Unguentorum.
The vocal production was also of the highest standard, as each of the twelve singers inhabited the idiom with ease – providing solo voices of the volume and timbre expected of ‘authentic’ performances of music of the period, but also joining together to produce a pleasing blend that was not the uniform sound of, say, 19th-century choral music, but reminiscent of the slightly idiosyncratic collection of timbres from a French-baroque organ; the contrast of the full-chorus ‘jolly rejoicing’ section at the end of Caecilia and the delicacy of the three-female-voice closing motet made for a perfect example of this.
Of particular note was Lucile Richardot’s extraordinary voice, the heft of which at the bottom of the range allowed her to deliver a classic haute-contre sound that was highly effective in her solo performance as Mary Magdalene – all the colours of her voice portraying a grief-maddened woman lurching between penitence and a remembered erotic attraction. Also to be mentioned was Nicolas Brooymans, whose bass voice (for Almacchius) was full of angry solidity, and Caroline Weynants whose sweet soprano for Judith gained a powerful bravura for her more declamatory passages. The trio in Caecilia was a delightful contrast of textures, thanks to the warm edgy fuzziness of Étienne Bazola’s light baritone (Valerianus), the bright clarity of Constantin Goubert’s tenor (Tibertius) and the calm purity of Norma Nahoun’s soprano (Caecilia).
The staging (by Vincent Huguet and Aurélie Maestre) was also flexible – a wooden staircase and three moveable blocks representing striated rock formations provided all the set that was needed to summon the war-torn Bethulia, Magdalene’s arid cave and a Roman prison.
One can, however, have too much of a good thing, and the copious banquet of sound became, after a while, over-rich, like four courses of foie gras: there was, perhaps, too much uninterrupted sameness. A lot of the material was lushly accompanied recitative that drove the plot, and with the lights out (making text unreadable) and a patchy surtitle display, everything became somewhat unrelenting. Less, in this case, would have been more; two of the Histoires would have been ample, split by an interval and perhaps some contrasting material.