November 13, 2017
In the grove scene of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, the second woman sings, “Oft she visits this lov'd mountain, / Oft she bathes her in this fountain; / Here Actaeon met his fate, / Pursued by his own hounds, / And after mortal wounds / Discover'd, discover'd too late.” Presumably inspired by this connection, Les Arts Florissants are touring a combination of one-act Baroque operas: Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Actéon (1684) followed by Dido and Aeneas (ca. 1688) – a pairing founder and music director William Christie has been championing for over 25 years. Christie and his group have a deserved reputation for great performances of Baroque music, and their Thursday evening show at Cal Performances did not disappoint.
Actéon doesn’t have the same dramatic force as the better-known opera on the program. It’s mostly celebrations of hunting and the woods: three scenes of atmospheric introduction, followed by a brief confrontation between Diana and Acteon, Acteon’s lament after being turned into a stag, and Juno proudly claiming credit for the tragedy.
That hardly matters for such a short piece, though: I was content to simply revel in the sensuous swirls of Charpentier’s music. It’s classic French Baroque fun: alternately raucous and plaintive, full of tense dissonances and satisfying resolutions. As a narratively appropriate warm-up to Dido and Aeneas, it’s just right.
Soprano Rachel Redmond (Arthébuze, Belinda) stood out among a talented cast for her round tone and lively acting. Her voice reminded me of ringing bells: clear, with a metallic edge. Soprano Élodie Fonnard (Diana, Second Woman) also impressed with crystalline sound and well-executed trills. Mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre (Juno, Dido) had a more feathery, hollow tone. Aspirates sometimes made her singing choppy — but not during her beautiful, flowing lament. She showed great dynamic control, making the first high “remember me” fortissimo and the second pianissimo, to heartbreaking effect.
Turning into an animal onstage is no mean feat, and tenor Reinoud Van Mechelen (Actéon, Spirit/Sailor) accomplished the transition using only his face and posture. Vocally, he was light and sweet in the haute-contre range of Actéon but seemed to struggle with excessive tension. Baritone Renato Dolcini (Hunter, Aeneas) showed off a dark, grainy instrument with expressive power during his short lament (“Jove’s commands shall be obeyed”). I wish that same expressiveness had been more apparent in the rest of the role.
There was also no shortage of comic relief: countertenor Carlo Vistoli camped it up with over-the-top gestures, expressions, and changes of dynamics as the Sorceress, aided by the equally silly (and skillful) sopranos Maud Gnidzaz and Virginie Thomas as the witches. The singers sounded particularly excellent in the choruses of both pieces, achieving a perfect balance of sound and precise coordination.
The orchestra cooperated well with the singers, too, playing with great energy without ever overwhelming the voices. The continuo was supportive but varied — commenting on the action rather than merely dutifully providing chords. Special commendation goes to Thomas Dunford, whose enthusiastic theorbo strumming was a highlight of “Liberté, mon cœur, liberté” and “Fear no danger to ensue.” The sawing of the violins sometimes got screechy, but the strings also provided moments of deep feeling, such as their weepy strains after Actéon’s transformation.
Sophie Daneman directed the semistaging. Simple blocking clarified characters’ identities (an important function when singers switched between solo characters and chorus nymphs, sailors, witches, and hunters) and told the two stories effectively. The most creative bit of business came after the witches’ chorus in Dido and Aeneas (“In our deep vaulted cell”). In their witchy character, the singers made mischief: stealing William Christie’s score, threatening to close the harpsichord, putting a hat on the theorbist, and even tickling the cellist’s feet. It’s a good reminder: there needn’t be anything stuffy about 300-plus-year-old music. Certainly, this double bill felt fresh, thanks to the talent and sheer energy of the ensemble.