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Actaeon Surprising Diana by Titian (1556-59)
25 Jan 2012

Charpentier and Purcell by Early Opera Company

Composed during the spring hunting season of 1684, for a patron and performance venue unknown, Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s brief six-scene Opera de Chasse (‘Hunting Opera’), Actéon, has remained seldom performed and something of a mystery.

Marc-Antonie Charpentier: Actéon; Henry Purcell: Dido and Aeneas

Actéon — Actéon: Ed Lyon; Diane: Claire Booth; Junan: Hilary Summers; Daphne: Ciara Hendrick; Hyale/Arthébuze: Elizabeth Weisburg; Deux Chasseurs: Jeremy Budd, Philip Tebb.

Dido and Aeneas — Aeneas: Marcus Farnsworth; Dido: Susan Bickley; Belinda: Claire Booth; Sorceress: Hilary Summers; First Witch/Second Woman: Elizabeth Weisberg; Second Witch: Ciara Hendrick; Spirit/Sailor: Ed Lyon.

Early Opera Company. Director/harpsichord: Christopher Curnyn. Wigmore Hall, London, Thursday 12 January 2012.

Above: Actaeon Surprising Diana by Titian (1556-59)


Based upon a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, this ‘pastorale en musique’ tells the tragic tale of the unfortunate eponymous hunter who unwittingly stumbles upon the secluded bathing haunt of the goddess Diana and her attendant nymphs. He attempts to conceal himself but to no avail, and he is punished severely for his trespass by the angry goddess. Diana transforms him into a stag and Actéon is pursued and torn apart by his own hunting hounds.

It is a fairly lightweight piece, with some dramatic variety and pleasing emotional contrasts; Charpentier’s score is typically elegant, with regard to melodic phrasing, and rhythmically robust, most especially in the bucolic scenes enlivened by dance-like instrumental forms and textures. Here, the assembled soloists emerged from the one-per-part chorus, deftly moving to the forestage at appropriate points, skilfully diverting and sustaining the audience’s attention. All produced a fairly idiomatic pronunciation of the French text; but, while a graceful phrasing of the exquisite yearning phrases was achieved, there was little attempt to render the authentic ornamentation of the French baroque style.

Charpentier, an accomplished tenor, probably composed the title role for himself. Here, Ed Lyon, singing confidently and with obvious commitment to the drama, produced a beautiful youthful tenor, surely sufficiently warm and tender to melt even the most glacial goddess’s heart. If Lyon’s upper register sometimes lacked a little weight and substance, the touching vulnerability of his tender pianissimo in his transformation scene more than compensated; and, he exalted Diana’s loveliness with wondrous awe. His transformation aria was followed by a trio sonata for violins and continuo, exquisitely played by violinists Kati Debretzeni and Huw Daniel supported by Reiko Ichise on viola da gamba.

As Diana, Claire Booth sang with focus and clarity, but while she was admirably reliable in pitch and tone, at times she seemed a little too forceful for the role. The heart-rending action was rudely interrupted by the interjections of Juno (Hilary Summers), who confesses that, in a jealous rage aroused by Jupiter’s infidelity, she has brought about Actéon’s death. Summers enjoyed the extravagant dramatic aspects of the part, projecting powerfully from the Wigmore Hall balcony; but, her tone was rather strident and somewhat undid the mood of elegiac pathos.

Ciara Hendrick and Elizabeth Weisberg completed the line up of competent soloists; the seven singers joined to form a chorus characterised by neat ensemble, and clean, airy textures. After Actéon’s death, his hunting companions lament “the beautiful days cut short” of this invincible hero “in the springtime of his age”; unfortunately some poor flute intonation unsettled the overall tuning at the close of what had been an appealing and convincing performance of an attractive and stirring score.

Charpentier’s Actéon is an unusual yet complementary pairing with Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, the latter being inconveniently succinct and requiring a partnering work. Yet, Charpentier’s score preceded Purcell’s by only five years, and there are many affinities between them, not only of musical style - Purcell’s dance-textures and rhythms often sound distinctly French - but also of situation and mythic context, for Charpentier’s narrative is also related by one of Dido’s ladies-in-waiting in the aria “Oft she visits this lone mountain” in Purcell’s opera.

If Charpentier’s pastoral drama is ultimately rather frivolous, Purcell inspires considerably greater emotional weight and intensity. With Anna Stephany, the advertised Dido, indisposed, Susan Bickley stepped into the role at short notice, presenting a controlled, poised interpretation of regal bearing, betrayal and distress. If her early arias seemed overly guarded and reserved, a little lacking in affective gesture, by the closing lament her noble dignity was firmly established and her portrayal deeply poignant.

Claire Booth was a deliciously rich-toned Belinda, and Hilary Summers’ vocal exaggerations were more apt for the disconcerting devilry of the Sorceress. As Aeneas, baritone Marcus Farnsworth, made as much as is possible of the slim part.

Christian Curmyn led the ensemble in typically controlled and elegant fashion; perhaps his rendering was a little too restrained, more suitable for Charpentier’s relatively inconsequential drama, than for the emotional peaks and troughs of Purcell. There was grace and discipline, but few musical or dramatic surprises; in the Purcell especially, the emotional peaks were somewhat muted, the protagonists a little too self-possessed. Even in the Charpentier the dances lacked spontaneity; one longed for a looser rein which would permit the instrumental players the necessary freedom to inject an improvisatory quality. Purcell’s drunken sailors and grotesque witches were distinctly reserved.

Although we don’t know the circumstances and venue of the first performance of Charpentier’s Actéon, its brevity and intimacy, and the courtly ambience of the French baroque idiom, suggest a private setting. Similarly, while it was once firmly believed that Purcell’s opera was composed for girls’ school in Chelsea run by dancing master Josiah Priest, critics now question whether it was not in fact modelled upon John Blow’s masque, Venus and Adonis, and first performed at court in the 1680s. Whatever their origins, both works are ideally suited to the intimacy of the Wigmore Hall, and the Early Opera Group’s thoughtful, if rather conservative, performance, heightened the grace and eloquence of these elegant, affecting scores.

Claire Seymour

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