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Royal Delights

October 7, 2008

For several years now, the Baroque ensemble Magnificat has made seventeenth-century French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier into something of a cottage industry. A regular fixture on the ensemble's season calendars, this composer embodies Magnificat's stated mission of uncovering the "'new music' of the early Baroque" — masters of the era who have yet to receive their due. Few composers indeed may fit the description of "hidden treasure" more aptly than Charpentier, who is often upstaged in performances today by Jean-Baptiste Lully but was highly regarded in his lifetime by such giants as King Louis XIV and Molière.
With Saturday's brief concert of two divertissements (short operatic entertainments) at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Berkeley, Magnificat Music Director Warren Stewart and company took another decisive step toward reclaiming Charpentier's reputation. Delivering a crystalline performance marked by luscious vocal purity and elegant instrumental support, Magnificat captured the vitality and freshness of these charming works, turning the evening into an impeccably refined affair.

Les Plaisirs de Versailles (The pleasures of Versailles; 1682) is house music in the literal sense, originally performed for Louis' thrice-weekly "fêtes of the apartments" in the main rooms of the Great Apartment of Versailles. Its dramatis personae comprise various pleasures that the Sun King evidently enjoyed in these digs: music, conversation, gambling, and that perennial favorite chocolate. Striking contrasts in instrumentation and style — lyrical airs for La Musique, prattling recitative for La Conversation, solemn tones for the temptations of Comus, the god of festivities — accentuate the central debate over which of these elements best satisfies the king's pleasures.

Both vocally and in their gestures, sopranos Laura Heimes (as Musique) and Jennifer Paulino (as Conversation) nicely captured the comedic aspects of their characters' arguments. Finely matched tone colors, keen attention to melodic shape, and vivid stage presence accentuated the elegance of even their most stinging put-downs. Both singers deserve credit for creating vivid personifications of Musique's campy haughtiness and Conversation's irksome blabbering. As the purveyor of chocolates, wines, and other delectables, bass Hugh Davies added an appealingly robust and seductive quality to the mix.

Considerably less resounding was the evening's vocal projection, the one flaw marring an otherwise finely polished gem. Many singers (Heimes and Davies excepted) had difficulty carrying over the orchestra, a crackerjack group of eight players whose superlative accompaniment should not have posed particular problems. St. Mark's acoustic didn't help matters, but placement of the vocalists in front of rather than behind the orchestra might have alleviated the problem.
Pastoral Pleasures
Also with a connection to royalty was the evening's other divertissement, La Couronne des fleurs (The crown of flowers; 1685), a work likely composed for the singers of Marie de Lorraine, Duchesse de Guise and cousin to Louis. Freely adapted from the prologue of Charpentier's comedy-ballet Le Malade imaginaire (The imaginary invalid; 1673, with text by Molière), this work emphasizes the pastoral over the allegorical. A cast of gods and shepherds celebrates the arrival of springtime with a contest to see who can extol the king's virtues most beautifully, the winner receiving a crown of flowers.

A graceful orchestral introduction, establishing the pastoral mood, segued into the spring goddess Flora's declamation of that season's arrival and the rules of the contest, delightfully captured in Haimes' pitch-perfect performance. Four characters then made their cases to win the crown, with fine contributions from sopranos Paulino and Ruth Escher and tenors Paul Elliott and Daniel Hutchings. Especially appealing were the alternating trios between women and men, the airtight ensemble singing flawless in intonation and blend. The divertissement concludes with Flora declaring all participants to be equally worthy of the crown and dividing its flowers among them, a judgment also well suited to the evening's performances as a whole.

Joseph Sargent holds a Ph.D. in musicology from Stanford University and teaches at the University of San Francisco.