Les Arts Florissants perform Actes de Ballet by Jean-Philippe Rameau at Tully Scope

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Jean-Philippe Rameau

Jean-Philippe Rameau

Les Arts Florissants perform Actes de Ballet
by Jean-Philippe Rameau at Tullyscope
Saturday, March 12, 2011 at 7:30 pm
Les Arts Florissants
William Christie, conductor
Emmanuelle de Negri, soprano
Hanna Bayodi-Hirt, soprano
Ed Lyon, tenor
Alain Buet, bass

Two Actes de Ballet by Rameau

Tully Scope has so far included a vast range of different kinds of music considered of especially vital interest today. On Saturday evening William Christie, the ebullient adoptive Frenchman from Buffalo and Les Arts Florissants introduced historically-informed performance to the mix, as well as another element that has been missing so far: light entertainment. It was about time for some music that was primarily designed to amuse…but to entertain intelligently, of course, because, as light and amusing as Rameau’s balletic-operatic entertainments were, the wit of his librettists’ manipulation of classical literature and myth was subtle and enlightening. The lightness of the proceedings was also apparent in the delightful moments when Mr. Christie’s vigorous enjoyment of Rameau’s dance measures recalled Sir Thomas Beecham’s concoctions after Handel. Although here the orchestrations and the instruments were authentic and the understanding of baroque music far more sophisticated, these moments remind one that Sir Thomas, for all his anachronism and vulgarity, was often not too far off the mark in spirit.

Rameau’s actes de ballet Anacréon and Pigmalion are chamber operas of a sort now so happily familiar to Boston audiences in the Boston Early Music Festival’s annual pre-Advent performances, which present important baroque chamber operas, often shorter in length, and often designed for private performances at court or at noble estates. (Rameau wrote both of these works for performance at public institutions in Paris, e.g. the Académie Royale de Musique.) Instruments, performance style, costumes, sets, acting, singing, and dancing are all  scrupulously researched, bringing audiences close to the material effect of what the composer himself might have experienced. At Tullyscope Les Arts Florissants took an approach which was musically somewhat similar, but dramatically quite different — almost diametrically opposed in some ways. Les Arts Florissants is a larger group, for one thing, and they are led by a conductor rather than playing as an ensemble, as the BEMF players do. Hence their sound is more of a blend—an effect that I felt was exaggerated by the Tully Hall acoustics—but more of that later.

The singers and chorus appeared in a free variety of modern black evening clothes, tending more towards the informal. Their positioning on stage was relaxed and fluid, allowing for a suggestion of settings and convincingly dramatic interchange. A contemporary upholstered chair to the conductor’s left became the focus of some of the more interesting incidents. The celebrations that began Anacréon, to give one characteristic example, was essentially like a modern cocktail party, in which relaxed good manners were the norm—quite a contrast to the formal baroque-age etiquette of a BEMF show.

The orchestra told the stories and floated the many dance numbers. Otherwise they and Mr. Christie allowed the four superb soloists to shine: the two sopranos, Emmanuelle de Negri and Hanna Bayodi-Hirt, tenor Ed Lyon, and Alain Buet, bass. Their technical mastery of baroque style and ornament was impeccable, and their acting always vivid and amusing. Their vibrato was appropriately restrained, but the richness and color of Mmes. de Negri and Bayodi-Hirt, the biting nuances of Ed Lyon’s delivery, and M. Buet’s assured, suave acting, suggested that they all work with a broad repertory and are not just specialized in baroque style.

As Anacreon, the Greek poet of the Sixth Century BC, whose verse and biography have made him the very model of the life lived for bibulous and sexual pleasures, Alain Buet carried the entire opera with his warm, humane impersonation and his mellifluous singing. The female leads were motivated by their reaction to his deeds and choices, the Priestess of Venus condemning the poet for drinking in the temple of her goddess, and her maid effecting a reconciliation, in which the ageing poet, entirely in the spirit of this sort of divertissement, gets to have his cake and eat it.

In Pigmalion, Ed Lyon took the central role, portraying the intense, obsessive artist, who falls hopelessly in love with his own creation. The stuffed chair was once again used to fine effect to show the statue’s transition from an inanimate to an animate state, but, as a show, there was a limit to what the group could achieve in the final scene, when the statue’s humanization is completed by means of dancing lessons. One really needs professional dancers, costumes, and set to make this complete, but the suggested movements of the soloists and chorus were appealing and full of good spirits, and the singing and the orchestral playing in Rameau’s inventive dance suite were splendid. After the statue has learned every dance currently practised, the performance concludes in high spirits. At this point the division between the stage and the audience seemed to dissolve and, as the group encored the final chorus, the many fans who had pretty well filled Tully Hall, joined in the party mood.

Les Arts Florissants gave us a delightful entertainment, one which fit gracefully into the varied, but hitherto earnest Tullyscope schedule. For once, however, I have to say that I would have preferred hearing this music in a different acoustic. The balance and warmth of Alice Tully Hall was not wasted on the period instruments, but much of their bite and resonance failed to come through. The orchestral sound was too smooth and blended. In a way, it’s almost a relief to know that this incomparably versatile hall has at least some limitations.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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