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Elizabeth Kenny
16 Dec 2013

Theatre of the Ayre: Charpentier

With the gaudy excesses of secular seasonal indulgence just a few streets away and the tills of Oxford Street traders rattling out melodies of materialism, this advent programme of elegance and refinement offered by lutenist Elizabeth Kenny and the early music ensemble which she founded, Theatre of the Ayre, provided a welcome opportunity for repose and reflection.

Theatre of the Ayre: Charpentier

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Elizabeth Kenny


Never one to tread customary paths, Kenny and her performers took us down unfamiliar by-ways during this evening of music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, beginning with a series of French noëls, carols and dances. Sung from the gallery, gradually increasing in intensity and joy, the traditional Noël, ‘A minuit fut fait un réveil’ (At midnight they were woken up), swept into the instrumental ‘Guillo, prens ton tambourin’, in which Clare Salaman’s boisterous hurdy-gurdy established a mood of spirited abandon.

Bass-baritone Jonathan Sells began a little tentatively in Charpentier’s ‘Noël pour les instruments’ (H534), in the air ‘Joseph est bien marié’ (Joseph is well married), but was more assertive when relating Joseph’s initial anger at his wife’s conception, the lines sharper and more agile; and, the angel’s words were emotively conveyed. Several instrumental numbers followed, full of musical and textural contrasts and enriched by adventurous chromaticisms. Salaman and leader Rodolfo Richter’s violin duet, in ‘Lassez paistre vos bêtes’, was particularly notable for its fluidity of line and beautiful clear tone.

When one considers French music of the seventeenth century, the word ‘oratorio’ does not naturally spring to mind. However, Marc-Antoine Charpentier was not only the first French composer to write oratorios, he also composed a substantial number of them, both secular and sacred. Having travelled to Rome in the 1650s to study painting, Charpentier found himself changing tack; he decided instead upon a career in music, studying with Giacomo Carissimi who was maestro of the chapel of Sant’Apollinare at the German College of the Jesuits from 1630 until his death in 1674, and one of the early masters of the Latin oratorio.

Returning from Rome, Charpentier found employment in the household of the Duchesse de Guise, where he was maître de musique until the Duchesse’s death in 1688, and the ‘Christmas oratorio’ that the Theatre of the Ayre presented here — In Nativitatem Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Canticum — was one of four which are known to have been written specifically for private performance by the Duchesse’s musical retinue. The composer declared that these musical servants were ‘so good that one could claim that those of several great sovereigns did not rival it’ (Mercure Galant, March 1688, p.306); the performers on this occasion certainly rose to the professed heights of their forerunners.

As we might expect, Charpentier enriched the traditional oratorio with elements of the contemporary French style, incorporating instrumental music, experimenting with concertato and contrapuntal textures, deepening the harmonic palette with progressive chromaticism, and widening the dramatic range of the vocal numbers. The members of the Theatre of the Ayre relished the musical conversations between voices and instruments. They captured the graceful lilt of the Preludium, with its pastoral rhythms and warm, full textures, before mezzo-soprano Anna Starushkevych related the ‘Récit de l’Historien’, giving us the first taste of the wonderfully full, sensuous tone with a wide range of expressive shades and colours that would delight throughout the evening, and which so beautifully enriched the closing ‘Air de Choeur’, the strophic rondeau ‘Salve, puerule’ (Hail, little child).

Despite asking for our understanding, as she was suffering from a chest infection, soprano Sophie Daneman, evidence little for which to apologise, finding a delicate softness for the gentle ‘Air de l’Ange’, accompanied by two recorders. The solo numbers of the oratorio are fairly brief — perhaps because the texts do not relate sustained expression of a single emotion that longer arias would require — and the tenderness of the angel’s song was quickly swept aside by the lively contrapuntal ensemble, ‘Choeur des pastores’, establishing a swift dramatic movement. The shepherds encourage each other to hasten to Bethlehem, and the ensuing instrumental march vigorously depicted their impetuous journey. Jonathan Sells’ short air, recounting the shepherd’s arrival at the stable, was fittingly mild and graceful, if a little understated.

The final hymn to the new-born Christ epitomised the way Charpentier used juxtaposition and diversity of texture and colour to create flowing dramatic-narratives: the solo soprano and mezzo-soprano passages contrasted affectingly with each other, and also with the ensemble verses and instrumental interjections. The closing choral diminuendo and relaxation of pace was sensitively accompanied by airy theorbo, and the rise into the final glowing cadence, ornamented by a lovely tenor decoration, was artfully controlled.

Indeed, this unrolling of diverse dramatic and musical episodes within a unified form made it apparent why the slightly surprising programming of Christmas Noels with a more substantial secular work, Charpentier’s ‘pastorale en musique’, Actéon, which was presented after the interval, made perfect sense.

Actéon relates an episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. A ‘miniaturisation’ of the tragédie-lyrique, the work incorporates all the musical elements of the full-scale form compressed into a smaller compass which suggests that it was originally designed for presentation in the home of a private patron, and which also makes it wholly suited to the intimate Wigmore Hall stage.

A sprightly French overture introduces the action, and the nimble, airy texture was characteristic of the instrumental playing throughout, the bright recorders contrasting sweetly with the warm but rhythmically incisive strings. The buoyant cries of the energetic ‘Choeur des chasseurs’ were interrupted by tenor Paul Agnew’s urgent avowals, as Actéon presses his hunters to take their quarry to the Goddess Diane’s grove, to offer it as a sacrifice to her divine beauty. Agnew sang with assurance and much expressivity, the tone beautiful, the text clearly conveyed. Actéon’s aria after the hunt, as he rests alone in the peaceful valley, was wonderfully crafted, the repeated rising appoggiaturas at the phrase-ends sensitively nuanced to communicate the emotions directly and movingly. There was an occasional sense of strain at the top, as when Actéon rejoices in the freedom of his heart, but Agnew’s sense of wonder when he espies the Goddess was spell-binding, the moment made all the more affecting as a result of the injection of tension and pace upon his subsequent discovery by Diane, and by the simplicity and openness of the tenor’s unworldly, innocent pleading, ‘Le seul hazard et mon Maleur/ Font toute mon offense’ (Only bad luck and my misfortune/ are my whole offence).

In the scene in which Actéon undergoes his tragic transformation, Agnew’s powerful monologue stirringly depicted the horrified visions of the dying man, as he declaimed the arioso lines with articulate eloquence. The violins’ delicate, halting response to the tragedy, and the concluding chains of falling suspensions played above a pianissimo continuo pedal, significantly added to the pathos.

Daneman was a fiery Diane, injecting brightness and vigour into the Goddess’s fury and chastisements. Starushkevych, as Junon, once again proved that she has undoubted star quality, using a variety of colours to convincingly depict character and singing the declamatory arioso with flexibility and style.

Charpentier’s characters and ensemble groups are clearly delineated. Here, the burly choruses of the hunters were complemented by the tranquil melodiousness of Diane’s nymphs. Helen Neeves and Heather Cairncross blended sweetly as Daphné and Hyale warn mortals not to stray into the Goddess’s grove, their entwining lines echoed sensitively by the two violins. Neeves also impressed as Aréthuze.

The larger ensembles were characterised by accuracy and concord, although there was still room for individuality and nuance. For, as Charpentier wrote, ‘Diversity is the very essence of music … Diversity alone is the source of all that is perfect in it, just as uniformity is the source of all insipidity and unpleasantness in it’ (Règles de composition fol.13). The Theatre of the Ayre, performing with complete commitment and considerable insight, as individuals and as a group, confirmed the truth of his words.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Charpentier: In Nativitatem Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Canticum H414, Seasonal Noëls, Actéon

Elizabeth Kenny, director, lute; Sophie Daneman, soprano (Diane); Helen Neeves, soprano (Aréthuze, Daphneé); Anna Starushkevych, mezzo-soprano (Junon); Heather Cairncross, alto (Hyale); Paul Agnew, tenor (Actéon); Jason Darnell, tenor (chasseur); Jonathan Sells, bass-baritone (chasseur); Rodolpho Richter, violin; Clare Salaman, violin, hurdy gurdy; Alison McGillivray, bass violin, bass violin; Pamela Thorby, recorder; Catherine Latham, recorder; Merlin Harrison, bass recorder; David Miller, theorbo, guitar; James Johnstone, harpsichord, organ. Wigmore Hall, London, Thursday 12th December 2013.

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