Les Arts Florissants

at the Civic Opera House

May 13


Music of the Baroque

at Grace Lutheran Church

May 22

The musical world owes Henry Purcell a huge debt of gratitude. To begin with, there’s the sheer, shining pleasure of his tunefulness and unfailing inventiveness. There’s his vocal music to point to whenever someone whines that it’s impossible to compose well in English; he made the music fit the language as few have done since. There’s his widely performed opera Dido and Aeneas, one of the earliest and finest examples of drama completely set to music. There’s his wide-ranging canon of Anglican church music, a second birth for that art form after the sterile tyranny of Puritan rule, picking up where Orlando Gibbons and Thomas Weelkes left off. There’s his vast and delightful repertoire of secular songs, duets, trios. And there’s his theater music.

Chicago audiences had the chance to hear two of Purcell’s semioperas recently, in two very different performance styles: Les Arts Florissants’ scaled-down touring production of The Fairy Queen and Music of the Baroque’s large-forces Dioclesian, or the Prophetess. Neither offers much to the dramatically inclined, but both have plenty of happy tunes and upbeat choruses, along with a few sad numbers to make the joyful ones stand out. What Gustav Mahler is to musical depression, Henry Purcell is to musical joy. The vocal and instrumental lines are elaborately ornamented, and singing the long and complicated runs is pure pleasure.

Both of these works are called operas, though they don’t qualify. An opera must have a reasonably coherent story line, which neither Dioclesian (1690) nor The Fairy Queen has. They are instead collections of songs, duets, choruses, and instrumental pieces intended to accompany dramatic productions that were closer to long, gaudy circuses, with actors, dancers, and fancy sets. Dioclesian’s music is woven through a highly fanciful history of the Roman emperor Dioclesian, The Fairy Queen through an altered production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Dioclesian at least makes a number of references to the title character in its various songs and choruses; The Fairy Queen includes not one word of the bard’s–the music could just as easily be stuck onto some other play.

It’s doubtful that a 17th-century audience would have seen much point in either of the recent productions, though Les Arts Florissants did present a complete “realization” of The Fairy Queen at Aix-en-Provence in 1989. It would have been difficult to take so elaborate a show on the road, so this is a sort of pocket production, with 7 singers, 11 instrumentalists, and 1 actress. It’s an intimate approach, and it works quite well.

William Christie’s Paris-based Les Arts Florissants, a young, polyglot ensemble founded in 1979, is now Europe’s premiere Baroque ensemble–with the reviews, recording contract, and catalog to prove it. The one American and two French sopranos, two British tenors, and two French basses displayed uniformly splendid diction. That’s hard enough for native speakers of English, a notoriously difficult tongue to sing well. For European singers–who rarely venture outside their own languages, and then often with less-than-felicitous results–it’s an impressive achievement. The French singers were also mercifully free of the annoyingly nasal vocal technique that seems to be a national trait, guaranteeing that few of their compatriots achieve international singing careers.

American soprano Claron McFaddon and bass Bernard Deletre were the most consistent in making their expressions and actions match the words and emotions of the music they were singing. McFaddon knows how to sell a song as well as any Broadway performer, while Deletre was comic without being clownish. Top honors go to soprano Veronique Gens, particularly for her touching duet “O Let Me Weep!” with violinist Hiro Kurosaki, who played with rare sensitivity. All seven sang beautifully, but soprano Sandrine Piau’s voice sometimes seemed lost in the vast spaces of the opera house.

British actress Harriet Walter, done up in empire gown and cape to represent the title character, provided the framework for the music by describing between numbers the action of Shakespeare’s play from Titania’s point of view. Archly delivering writer Jeremy Sams’s few but well-chosen words, she disposed of huge chunks of plot in brief but memorable fashion. The instrumentalists were full partners in this work, not mere accompanists. Christie conducted unobtrusively from the keyboard while providing a sturdy continuo.

Dioclesian, Music of the Baroque’s end-of-season offering, was a more conventional presentation. After Les Arts Florissants’ spare musical lines, it was pleasant to luxuriate in the sounds of the larger ensemble: nine violins versus two, eight sopranos versus three. Conductor Thomas Wikman dealt briskly enough with the four instrumental pieces that head up the work–there’s no singing until the play’s second act–before settling into the airs and choruses that made up the bulk of the production.

The soloists were not as evenly matched as those of The Fairy Queen. The standout was tenor Bruce Fowler, whose ringing tone and soulful delivery are perfectly suited to this music. Soprano Patrice Michaels Bedi and baritone Richard Cohn offered their customary well-produced tone and clear diction. Countertenor Steven Rickards has an irritating habit of standing bowlegged while hunching over his score, and then bouncing around in time to the music; given the unnatural character of the countertenor voice, it was not a felicitous combination of sight and sound.

The larger forces made possible a better blend of sound than Les Arts Florissants could offer. But Henry Purcell’s music was done justice by both.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ken Collins.