The Boston Early Music Festival concluded its 25th-concert season Sunday evening, bringing William Christie and Les Art Florissants to Harvard University’s Sanders Theater with “Serious Airs and Drinking Songs.” That somewhat awkward phrase is a direct translation of a French expression that recurs in the titles of many 17th– and 18th-century song anthologies. Selections from that repertory became elements of a quasi-dramatic confection of the participants’ devising. (Christie’s interview last week with BMInt staff can be read here.)
Sanders Theater proved more than adequate for the “semi-staged” presentation of these French Baroque songs. A beautifully decorated French-style harpsichord by D. Jacques Way, flanked by seats and music stands for four additional instruments, served as the backdrop for the five singers, who entered and exited as called for by the music. As Harvard professor Kate van Orden explained in a pre-concert lecture, French 17th-century song sounds more restrained, less virtuosic, than the more familiar arias of Italian Baroque opera and cantata. Christie’s renditions appeared sometimes charming, sometimes unabashedly theatrical, but never musically false to their original style.
Actually, a substantial portion of the event comprised not French songs but two miniature pastoral dramas by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. These, however, shared the stage with songs by Charpentier and his contemporaries Étienne Moulinié, Sébastian Le Camus, and especially Michel Lambert (father-in-law of Charpentier’s rival Lully). Long a favorite of Christie, Charpentier is best known today for sacred music, but he was also a collaborator with the comic playwright Molière. Apart from Charpentier’s “Petite pastorale” and “Pastoreleta,” however, the players brought us airs de cour: literally, court airs, but as likely to have been sung in private households as in royal palaces.
It disappointed me that the selections did not include any of the ornamented airs that comprise some of the high points of the repertory. The songs by Lambert were all chosen from the composer’s second published collection of 1689. This contains part-songs for up to four singers, each introduced by a substantial ritournelle for two violins and continuo. Unheard were his earlier and more typical settings from 1669, in which the second stanza of most songs repeats the melody of the first with intricate and often difficult vocal ornamentation. It was a shame that none these songs could be fitted into the evening’s quasi-dramatic design.
In Sunday’s incarnation, Les Arts Florissants consisted of five singers joined by five instrumentalists, including Christie, who directed from the harpsichord. The thorough program notes by Rick Jones informed us that this was the group’s second program of this type, although evidently the first to be brought to Boston. Here the performers represented “a troupe of actors rehearsing, for the French court, a pastoral in Italian by the composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier.” In other words, listeners were invited to join the musicians in the pretense that this was an actual 17th-century performance, albeit one given in present-day dress and with only a few props, chiefly a table and a clothes rack. These, following a regrettable modern tradition, were brought out by the singers during the overture to Charpentier’s “Petite pastorale.”
It has now become quite common to hear sequences of madrigals, arias, and other short vocal examples of “early” music worked more or less convincingly into artificial quasi-dramas. The practice has a quasi-model in the 18th-century pastiche or pasticcio, which had in turn a quasi-offspring in the 19th-century music hall entertainment that eventually became early 20th-century vaudeville. Potentially entertaining, the practice also has the potential of descending into self-parody or vulgarity. This approach can demonstrate to a present-day audience the expressive depths of a simple lute song, as it did in Moulinié’s “Enfin la beauté,” the earliest work on the program (from 1624). But extraneous stage business can also draw attention away from music that was never meant to enact a story.
On the whole, the intrusion of modern stage conventions into the deliveries did not compromise the superb singing and playing, except perhaps when, following another modern practice, mezzo-soprano Anna Reinhold was required to sing a portion of Camus’s lovely “Laissez durer la nuit” while lying on the floor. She was allowed to finish it sitting up, yet I wonder whether the song’s Monteverdian climax would have been even more intense had she been permitted to stand—as tenor Reinoud van Mechelen was permitted do in the final refrain of Charpentier’s “Tristes déserts,” the very affecting song that opened the second half.
Something needs to be said, too, about the decision to have the three men sing Lambert’s “Sans murmurer” while surrounding the mezzo’s supine body. The gender politics of these songs are already potentially grating to a present-day audience; here all were invited to exercise the “male gaze” which has been a concern of modern art history and cinema studies and which, for once, is not obviously an element of this song. In any case, the “semi-staging” seemed to take precedence over the music of this song, especially as the voices by the end had grown so soft that they were lost (at least where I was sitting) into the loud ventilation noise of Sanders Theater.
That Reinhold is nevertheless an exquisite singer was made abundantly clear in two particularly beautiful songs toward the end, Camus’s “Laissez durer” and Lambert’s “Laisse-moi soupirer.” The latter opens with a quotation from John Dowland’s famous “Lachrimae” pavan, a point which was underlined by having lutenist Thomas Dunford play the opening of the earlier Elizabethan piece as a sort of introduction. And for once, we were allowed to hear the ritournelle of Lambert’s song played with legato suaveness by violinists Florence Malgloire and Sue-Ying Koang without any accompanying stage business.
The “high tenor” or haute-contre van Mechelen—in a role originally sung by the composer Charpentier—and baritone Cyril Auvity were equally exquisite as the competing singers in the opening “Petite pastorale.” Soprano Emmanuelle de Negri, who was credited with the “semi-staging,” also deserves praise, not only for her singing but for the restrained yet effective use of Baroque gesture and blocking, above all in the “Pastoraletta.” Here bass singer Lisandro Abadie cut a particularly impressive figure through his expertly contorted gesticulations as the god Pan. I was less enthusiastic about the decision to turn Moulinié’s part-song “Guillot est mon ami” into a sort of pantomimed debauche. The audience was amused, but did the little deaths alluded to in the text need to be made explicit by various sighs and gasps?
Christie’s keyboard accompaniments were nearly always discrete, and the constantly varied continuo instrumentation rarely got out of hand, although I found the high harpsichord riffs and offstage birds whistling in Charpentier’s “Charmantes fleurs” too cute. Gambist Myriam Rignol, an invariably attentive accompanist, had a few brief but expressive bass line solos in “Ah, que vous êtes heureux” by Camus, himself a player of the viola da gamba. But the point was somewhat obscured by the unnecessary addition of a lute line above it.
The largest work heard was not a French song but Charpentier’s Italian “Pastoraletta,” an early composition in which the style of his Roman mentor Carissimi was much in evidence. Carissimi is known today for his sacred oratorios on biblical stories. The “Pastoraletta” is structured much like those, but although lighter in tone Charpentier’s music occasionally achieves real drama, especially in a chorus that sees the theft of a favorite lamb by a wolf.
This is the work that we were to imagine being rehearsed by the performers, and its five scenes were therefore interspersed among the French songs. This plan, reminiscent of BEMF’s double bill of two 18th-century operas last season, was not ineffective, but it betrayed a lack of faith in the ability of the air de cour to hold a listener’s attention, and it was ironic that each half of the otherwise French program ended with a scene from Charpentier’s little Italian drama. The “wolf” chorus, which concluded the first half, was executed with real panache, no less so when it was repeated as an encore. I was puzzled, however, by the dirge-like rendition of the final chorus, contradicting the exhortations in its text to “dance, laugh, and faithfully sing.” Did Charpentier really expect us to take so seriously the unoriginal closing line (“true love conquers all”)?
Still, this remarkable program could only have been conceived by one who knows this abstruse repertory as profoundly as Christie, and executed by musicians who possess the exceptional capabilities of his collaborators. A final word of thanks must go to BEMF for the informative booklet, which included the complete texts of the songs together with Susannah Howe’s precise translations (which were also projected above the stage).