Happy Marriage: Italian Style With French Accents

Soprano Ambroisine Blé was featured in two cantatas and an opera aria with, from left, cellist Emmanuel Jacques, harpsichordist Christophe Rousset, and violinists Gilone Gaubert-Jacques and Stéphan Dudermel. (©Thomas Bartilla)

BERLIN – If the Staatsoper Unter den Linden’s experimental production of Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie drew attention to the challenges of updating stage works to a contemporary aesthetic, an afternoon concert on Dec. 2 by the ensemble Les Talens Lyriques underscored the virtues of authentic-minded musicianship and a more historical approach. The program – which drew to a close the first edition of the Staatsoper’s baroque festival, the Barocktage – juxtaposed Rameau with the less-performed Jean-Marie Leclair and Michel Pignolet de Montéclair, exploring music that was influenced by the Italian style during the reign of Louis XV.

Christophe Rousset founded Les Talens Lyriques. (Wikipedia)

The event took place in the Apollo Saal, a gilded marble reception area that has been renovated to provide fitting acoustics for chamber music and seating for approximately 200 people. It was an intimate space in which to experience the effortless communication of harpsichordist Christophe Rousset, founder of Les Talens Lyriques, with a string trio and, in two cantatas, the young soprano Ambroisine Blé.

In the fast dance numbers of Leclair’s Première récréation de musique, Op.6, the performance was virtuosic but never allowed technical concerns to take the foreground. Perhaps only native speakers can master this style, which brought French accents and ornamentation to the Italian form so convincingly.

Melodies seemed to pull the tempo in their wake during the slow, longing Forlane, while violinists Gilone Gaubert-Jacques  and Stéphan Dudermel blended as if playing one instrument in the upbeat Menuets I & II. The rhythms of the final Chaconne were weighty but life-affirming, with fiery textures passed from the harpsichord to the violins.

Gaubert-Jacques was a tireless leader, subtly communicating dance rhythms with her body. Leclair’s Deuxième récréation de musique, Op. 8, does not brim with ideas to the same extent as Op.6, but the ensemble kept the listener rapt through the smooth fugue of the Ouverture, the driving lyricism of the Forlane, and the stomping dance rhythms of the final Tambourins I & II.

Montéclair wrote more than 20 cantatas, four in Italian. Interestingly, his La Morte di Lucretia evokes the vocal music of Handel, who is known to have borrowed liberally from his Italian contemporaries. Dry recitatives accompanied by cello (Emmanuel Jacques) and harpsichord alternate with da capo arias as the title character, Lucretia, decides to take her own life rather than live with the shame of having been raped by Sextus Tarquinius, the last king of Rome.

The concert took place in the intimate Apollo Saal. (Staatsoper Unter den Linden)

In the slow aria “Dove vai crudo spietato,” which recalls the pleading numbers of Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, Blé struck an ideal balance between dramatic expression and musical elegance, blending with the ensemble while communicating the character’s plight. The Apollo Saal, better matched to purely instrumental works, was at times pushed to the limit when her voice rose to a forte, but the performance was nonetheless a delight. She impressed particularly in the da capo of the fast aria “Coraggio miei spirti” with virtuosic but utterly natural ornamentation.

Rameau’s cantata Le Berger fidèle opened the program in an incisive performance as the protagonist, Mirtillo, prevents the sacrifice of her lover Amarillis on the altar. The ensemble achieved a striking unity in the first aria, “Faut-il qu’Amarillis périsse,” as Mirtillo vacillates between states of violent anger and gentle pleading, the score’s harmonies shifting in kind.

Blé inspired empathy without chewing the scenery, letting out a full vibrato in the final triumphant aria “L’Amour qui regne dans votre ame,” which follows Italian style. Responding to the audience’s enthusiastic applause, the ensemble offered an encore, the aria “Quand je vole” from Mondonville’s 1758 opera Les fêtes de Paphos, which is full of challenging melismas for the soprano.

The concert turned out to be not just a display of beautiful musicianship but an introduction to composers who are rarely heard outside the French-speaking world. Would that the opera stage in Berlin provided a platform for such tasteful baroque performances more often.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin, contributing to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times. As a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, she is writing about the compositional legacy of Kurt Weill.