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Monday, 6 July 2015

Report from York Early Music Festival 2015 : The Early Opera Company

This reviews Early Opera Company in Charpentier / Purcell, York Early Music Festival

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

6 July

This is a review of The Early Opera Company’s performances of
Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s
Actéon and Henry Purcell’s Dido and Æneas at York Early Music Festival on Sunday 5 July 2015 at 6.30 p.m.

At The Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall at The University of York (@UniOfYork) for York Early Music Festival (@yorkearlymusic), Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Actéon was realised for two transverse flutes, viola da gamba, bass violin, theorbo, two violins, and harpsichord continuo (played by director Christian Curnyn). The introductory sections to the work had a melancholy tone, with restrained use of adornment : amongst them, were the brightly famous melody, and another that, part of the fluidity within moods, created one from repeated note-patterns.

The Scène première began urgently, and moved into and back out of reflectiveness, as Actéon (sung by Ed Lyon) engaged us in story-telling, his enthusiasm kept clean by very little vibrato, and with an instrumental ‘tail’ to this Scène. The next began with two dances, the first more lively, the second more measured.

Singing Diane (Sophie Junker), unforcedly understated her voice in a way that conveyed both substance and, through these more inward means, the evocation of desire, and which made the one large accentuation that she made all the more effective. The impression of the Scène was open and relaxed for the Chœur des Nimphes, with flutes and theorbo, before becoming more like a state occasion. The setting of the text was matched, nigh phrase for phrase, by the instrumentalists, the violinists leading our way, and into a delicate feel to Gardez vous, importuns amants, / D’en troubler les douceurs parfaites.

With a resemblance to a ground on the bass violin, as Arthébuze’s (Ciara Hendrick's) section alternated with that of the Chœur, and she used a different tone-colour when she came to the fore (partly achieved at the cost of swallowing the sound a little ?). As if bringing down an excited heartbeat, the instruments slowed slightly to a soft close.

In the Scène troisième, Actéon lyrically engages with his experience : the poetry is in the music, the music in the poetry, as he is hoist by the raptures of his own words, in S’il vient m’attaquer, […] Il verra ses projects se tourner en fumée, the verbal trap of setting himself up as a challenge to his [notion of] Dieu. Only too late does he rein himself in, with a slight hesitation in the final words, and, here, we are in the territory of Euripides (in a play such as The Bacchae), dramatizing those overweaning urges that we all are prey to, and making from this very familiar story our common experience :

Plaintive violin and theorbo bring out the bright resonance within these textures, and, as Actéon continued to boast his bluff naivety in the shorter block of verse about Liberté, the ensemble goes up tempo, and he with all the meanings of the words got simply ‘carried away’, fully as if he were William Harford (Tom Cruise) in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), embracing he knows not what dream, and with the enchantment first in the tones of theorbo and of Reiko Ichise’s [viola da] gamba, and then, with the flutes joining in, in Eligio Luis Quinteiro giving his playing a particularly plucked quality, as so quickly Actéon is seduced by the notion of cette route inconnue / M’offrira quelq’endroit propre à les [Diane et ses sœurs] écouter.

In the closing Chœur des nimphes, the writing is highly accented, and Charpentier reduces down to just the voices, to herald, at the start of Scène quatrième, extreme effects on the gamba (whose aesthetics endeared it this specific age, where it had its heighday ?), as Ed Lyon finds himself struggling to utter human sounds : the Ovidian transformation did not need staging to be fully real to us, a lightning disintegration of the kind that, in Die Winterreise’s much slower descent, takes us to the cold horror, beyond feeling, of the disintegration in and of Der Leiermann ? Actéon’s closing words, acknowledging l’estat ou je me voys and ma honte, show that he knows his fate, and we close with harpsichord and violin, then nothing.

Nothing, that is, until a theme couched in pain that will soon usher in the penultimate Scène, where, known but to us (as yet), the dramatic irony of words such as Un spectacle si doux ne s’offre pas deux foix, addressed to Actéon (imagined absent), will ring false and belie the sentiment (though, mimetically, one is ahead of one’s self : please see below). In the meantime, we have a tortured, suffering quality and are we not inevitably a little reminded (though without, of course, redemption) of the tenor aria from Bach’s St John Passion ? :

Erwäge, wie sein
blutgefärbter Rücken
In allen Stücken
Den Himmel gleiche geht

This is the very nub of this music, what it has been written for, so that it would lead here : we heard this material alluded to in the instrumental introduction, we know the familiar story, and it was all preparing us for this point (not unlike, again, the Bach, although Charpentier died more than twenty years earlier ?), with its slide and Sul ponticello effects, which, in an interlude, give us very great subtlety of note-painting (Charpentier’s and this ensemble’s), and heartfelt feeling (albeit Actéon’s full plight is undercut by reverting to four vocal parts at the finish).

The Scène cinquième, prefigured above, comprises the Chœur des chasseurs alone, ironically with bright, female voices urging Quittez la resverie [Kubrick, again, with what is dreamt, what ‘real’... though dream is eternal, older than Chaucer, and The Boke of The Duchess], but, with a recursion of the central section, male voices are becoming more evident :

Having said that the work had built up to Actéon’s despairing transformation, and the unknowing members of the hunt’s delight in seeing him cornered, the final Scène consolidates it all, starting with a difficult quality to Junon’s declaring and in triumph enjoying his death, delighting in his fate. Especially its manner (par ses chiens dévorés), as a lesson to les mortels odieux, the tone being set to Actéon’s retinue by the word ‘Ainsi’.

Risking we know not what wrath, they briefly dare plea for his worthiness, and her howl and leonine roar shout them down with passion : her reasoning, rooted in sharp jealousy and Hilary Summers’ real relish of this stage fury, turns out to be politics, and above all mortal issues of merit and justice (Gloucester has it in Lear, ‘As flies to wanton boys’ ?). (Thankfully for them, one supposes, and their little moment of protest, someone has to survive to tell the tale, if there is to be deterrent…)

Quietly (as suitable for one subdued), the Chœur des Chasseurs revolves the final three sections of text with Ed Lyon (who had been our Actéon) joining in with the male voices, after a while, before, at Faisons monter nos cris (which begins the central section), all gave voice for what is, at heart, another posture at defiance / more posturing (from a place of safety). Since the text is not just set once, it is not a final gesture, after all, when bass is added to the female singers and a tenor voice, and Charpentier instead revisits Faisons monter, feigning, with the violins accenting the last word, to end with Qu’ils pénètrent jusqu’aux enfers.

However, the female voices, leading all to sing with them, take us to the preceding section of text, where the taxing question, Quel cœur, à ce malheur, ne seroit pas sensible ?, separates off from the other lines, and somehow Charpentier even seems to make it right to conclude on a concord, and to very much applause at The Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall (about which there was no doubt !).

Some less-detailed impressions of Purcell's Dido and Æneas - noting throughout 45 minutes of drama, in Part I, leaves one just wanting to sit back for Part II...

As to both works given, this is living, breathing music, with an assurance to all aspects of the staging of the performance by The Early Opera Company under Curnyn, and there were almost religious sensations at play here, as if of litany.

It deserved a standing ovation. (But maybe they don’t do that at Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall… ?)

In instrumental terms (and with the addition of a viola, compared with Part I), Purcell had set out his stall of more complex grief and grieving in the very opening of the Overture to Dido and Æneas.

Emilie Renard*, as Dido, has a voice to describe whose qualities all of these characteristics are applicable : strength, uncomplication, clarity, immediacy, pliability. Opposite her, Callum Thorpe (as Æneas) had palpable directness, with power in his bass, projecting the words and feeling alike of the role.

When Renard’s colleagues Sophie Junker and Ciara Hendrick sang as a duo, working their voices together in pursuit of her character’s downfall, they did so with honeyed diction, and little vibrato – the former did so with particular ease.

Here, a link to a review (by James Whittle) in The York Press


* Who had also been singing roles in Part I, but the credits appear incorrect in the programme :

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

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