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.
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.