Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Mozart in Paris: Les Arts Florissants @ Barbican Hall, London

9 June 2006

After a lacklustre start on Tuesday with Mozart’s Ascanio in Alba, the Barbican’s Mostly Mozart Festival was back on form tonight with a programme of works by Mozart and his Parisian contemporaries.

William Christie and his period instrument ensemble Les Arts Florissants were joined by five soloists for a symphony, an oratorio, a motet and highlights from an opera, all in one evening.

Three of the four works were completely unknown (to me at least).

But these were the most invigorating items on the programme, which left one with a much fuller idea of the context of Mozart’s compositions of the period.

Indeed, the one work by Mozart that was performed, the ‘Paris’ Symphony, K297, was the least inspiring. After a strong D major opening, there was a lack of coordination between the strings. Sudden dissonances added more spice, and the flutes brought some colour. However, the second movement lacked focus, and the winds had problems with their intonation, particularly the bassoons. The violin sound for the last movement was exquisite, but the performance seemed rather rushed.

Not so the highlights from Rameau’s 1737 opera tragdie, Castor et Pollux. The piece tells of the fraternal relationship between the protagonists of the title, one a human being, the other immortal. After a series of trials, in which the brothers make sacrifices for each other, Jupiter grants them immortality as a reward for their special love, at which point they become the Gemini or Heavenly Twins.

Extracts from three scenes were performed, and the work was revealed as remarkably inventive. The ensemble played the overture with vigour, moving from the dotted-rhythms of the opening to the complex fugal lines of the second section with ease; they were perhaps a little first violin-heavy, however. Then the choir entered with the strong chorus, ‘Que tout gmisse’, having been announced by a distinctive timpani call. Chromatic descents gave the music an unusual edge, almost modern in its penetrating sound.

Flutes provided a jolly feel in the Air trs gai, whilst the Entre d’Hb et de sa suite conveyed a delicate sensuality. The minor key chorus ‘Conaissez notre puissance’ gave a brief opportunity for three soloists from the choir to shine, giving way to the poignant Sarabande. And the final scene, telling of the brothers’ metamorphoses into the Gemini twins, featured all kinds of brilliant effects, especially whizzing scales on the violins.

Next up was the motet In exitu Israel by the French composer Jean-Joseph Cassana de Mondonville. A setting of Psalm 113, in which the Israelites flee Egypt and are freed from slavery, the piece is in six very contrasting movements. The violins were in spirited form at the start, preparing the launch of the male opening chorus, followed by the full complement of singers. Exciting scales and pulsating figures in the second verse told of the driving back of Jordan, and the tenor Paul Agnew gave a lyrical solo for the third verse, ‘The mountains skipped like rams’. Perhaps the baritone Andr Morsch was underwhelming in tone for ‘Tremble, thou earth’, but the mezzo Karine Deshayes made up for it in the optimistic and sprightly fifth verse, and the chorus ended the first half with an overwhelming rendition of the contrapuntal sixth verse.

To end the evening, we heard Henri-Joseph Rigel’s complete half-hour oratorio, La sortie d’Egypte, a retelling of the same story as Mondonville’s In exitu Israel. Rigel is even more inspired in his choice of voice and instrumental groups, which include a quartet of soloists and a magnificent double chorus at the end. For me, the strongest singer of the evening was soprano Claire Debono. Her voice has a lovely tone, her diction is excellent and she projects with consistent power. She seemed to control the quartet after the chorus’ rousing opening, and her aria ‘If our loathsome tyrants’ was the vocal highlight of the night.

Sadly, bass Alain Buet paled in comparison and was underpowered in his long aria, slightly undermining the impact of Moses in the story. However, he improved later on, and the other soloists and chorus were excellent.

It was a wide-ranging and unusual programme, superbly conducted and performed. Let’s hope the rest of the Mostly Mozart Festival is just as good.

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