in: Reviews

November 12, 2011

Glowing Charpentier in Unlikely Place

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While usually the spot for high-stepping, cross-dressing musical theater like “The Donkey Show” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” Oberon in Cambridge proved an ideal setting for the graceful rhythms and elegant vocals of the French Baroque on Friday night. With period instrument ensemble L’Academie in the club, their program entitled “The Glamorous Life” illustrated why this music will always be a great excuse to eat, drink and be merry.

The red tablecloths, jazz club lighting, and libations on draught may not have recalled any salon where Louis XIV enjoyed Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Les Plaisirs de Versailles, but L’Academie’s performance glowed with intimacy and energy. Composed to entertain the Sun King and his guests during regular festivities at the royal apartments, this short chamber opera centers on an allegorical quarrel between Music and Conversation: after Conversation interrupts Music’s song several times, other divinities attempt to quell their bickering with sweets and amusements until Music reveals her annoyance as a ruse to entertain the king.

Fortunately, Charpentier’s charming melodies and orchestration more than compensate for the text’s dramatic shortcomings. Soprano Brenna Wells made a convincing diva as Music, with Teresa Wakim’s boisterous interjections and sly timing earning laughs as the chatty Conversation. Both sopranos blended seamlessly in duet and demonstrated clear diction throughout, with Wells’s occasionally turning choppy in the upper register. Douglas Williams’s flowing bass-baritone and strong presence were effective in the secondary role of Comus, god of festivity, yet the four-voice chorus (from Megan Stapleton’s bright lead soprano down to Paulo Carminati’s solid, flexible baritone) impressed with their creamy timbre and engaging commentary. Their staccato laughter at Music’s expense brought her outbursts to a fitting close.

Harpsichordist and director Leslie Kwan directed her instrumental forces with sensitivity and snap underneath the vocals. L’Academie’s precise rhythms highlighted both the uniquely French dance character of these works, as well as the importance of sustaining momentum at all tempos. The chorus’s pleas to Music were enhanced by the orchestra’s steady, toe-tapping beat, and firm bass lines underneath the closing hymn to Louis XIV kept things from turning lugubrious.

Friday night’s program began with a springy instrumental suite from Charpentier’s opera Circe. The tumbling “Passacaille” put L’Academie through its paces, while the “Chaconne” from Jean-Marie LeClair’s Opus 8 closed the evening with a variety of moods and instrumental colors. Flute, recorder, and bassoon added a cool, silky tone to the ensemble for this piece, hiding lapses in intonation between the violins that marred otherwise compelling passages. Douglas Balliett’s fleet violone was another commendable part of this closing work.

Amidst the clanking glasses behind the bar, a shining disco ball above, and the three principals of Les Plaisirs de Versailles joining the stage from a table in the audience, “The Glamorous Life” snubbed several conventions associated with this or any other genre of the classical repertoire. Yet the main event was always the music. Technical quibbles aside, in this regard the sincerity and humor of L’Academie served this music brilliantly (even if they also had the audacity to make it “accessible”).

This program will be repeated on Saturday, November 12 at 2:00 pm at Oberon in Harvard Square. More information is here.
Andrew J. Sammut also writes for Early Music America and All About Jazz, and blogs on a variety of music at clefpalette.wordpress.com. He also plays clarinet and lives in Cambridge.

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