Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Les Arts Florissants/Christie @ Barbican Hall, London

4 November 2008

Les Arts Florissants/Christie@ Barbican Hall, London, 4 November 2008

  Given the poverty of French baroque music in this country, Les Arts Florissants, and their director William Christie, are always eagerly received. In this latest Barbican appearance the period orchestra confirmed their distinguished reputation with a stunning performance of three out of the four acts from Rameau’s 1735 opera Les Indes galantes.

While there are overarching themes of “otherness” and exoticism typical eighteenth-century concerns the four acts are self-contained and were often rearranged or edited, as in this programme. With this work Rameau relinquished the formal tragdie en musique tradition in favour of a more flexible opra-ballet format, which licensed a richly expressive music that ranges between the literal and poetic.

The narratives are weak, and certainly wouldn’t stand up to post-colonialist scrutiny, but were intended as vehicles for lavishly theatrical scores. In ‘Le Turc gnreux’ (‘The Generous Turk’) Ed Lyon’s Valre and Joo Fernandes as the eponymous pasha battled it out for Juliette Galstian’s slave-girl milie. The three worked well as an ensemble and Galstian sang with tonal assurance, but her voice lacked a sense of depth and purity.

‘Les Incas du Prou’ (‘The Incas of Peru’) tells of the love-triangle between Phani, a native Inca, her Spanish lover Don Carlos and the sinister Huascar. Not only is this, musically speaking, the most sublime of the three acts, but it was enhanced here by a remarkable performance from Sonya Yoncheva as Phani: her soprano sounded rich, lustrous and perfectly controlled.

Foregoing the third act ‘Les Fleurs, fte persane’ the programme concluded with ‘Les Sauvages’ (‘The Savages’), perhaps the best-known of the four, which is set amongst native North Americans. Again Yoncheva impressed, this time with ‘Sur nos bords l’amour’, an air of staggering beauty, sensitively and seductively sung, and Fernandes, appearing for the third time, deserved praise for his smooth and glossy bass.

The orchestra and choir (playing an active role in this semi-staging) of LAF sounded superb under Christie’s precise yet economic direction. If the soloists didn’t blow you away, the interludes might have: a battery of percussion instruments heralded storms, lightening bolts and, during ‘Les Incas du Prou’, a spectacular volcanic eruption, accompanied by furious strings. Orchestrally, at least, it was a tour de force.


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