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Garden of live flowers

03/08/2005 -  
Le Jardin des Voix

Amel Brahim-Djelloul (soprano), Claire Debono (soprano), Judith van Wanroij (soprano), Xavier Sabata (counter-tenor), Andrew Tortise (tenor), André Morsch (baritone), Konstantin Wolff (bass-baritone)

William Christie (conductor), Vincent Boussard (semi-staging director)

Les Arts Florissants

What is it about Christies and gardens? Sir George built his opera house in his gardens in Glyndebourne, and his heirs now nurture a rolling chorus of outstanding young singers as well as putting on an annual festival that is probably still the best as well as the oldest, and a tour that reaches some very unpastoral places. William, no relation, is apparently a keen gardener, and since 2002 he has run Le Jardin des Voix, a kind of hothouse Glyndebourne chorus that offers exceptional young singers intensive training and coaching followed by an extensive showcase tour. Both Glyndebourne chorus and Le Jardin des Voix select singers from around the world and generally ensure a career, it is striking that Glyndebourne gets a comparatively small proportion of its funding from public money -- an Arts Council subsidy for the tour -- and supports the chorus from the price of tickets and corporate jollies; William Christie's company, Les Arts Florissants, based in Caen, gets extensive funding from the French government and the regional government in Normandy, and is a year-round operation touring several works a year in Europe and the United States, as well as locally. Neither way is "better", of course, but it is tempting to be impressed with how good Glyndebourne is in the circumstances, while Les Arts Flo are usually so good that the circumstances don't enter into it.

Although the image of a musical garden these days probably summons up thoughts of Wagnerian flower maidens and Art Nouveau going on Disney, it is entirely appropriate for a baroque ensemble associated by inspiration and style with Versailles. Le Jardin de Voix this time presented a mixed bouquet plucked from various flowerbeds, a staged selection of arias and scenes that seemed designed to put the seven singers through their paces rather than to form a harmonious whole. There was basically a seventeen-century part that consisted of Monteverdian music theatre and motets and an eighteenth-century part of arias and French operetta. A handful of pieces stood out: Purcell's "I attempt from love's sickness" and the associated spirit music, from The Indian Queen, Luigi Rossi's thoroughly Monteverdian seven-voice "Un peccator pentito", "Fatal amour" from Rameau's Pigmalion (displaced into the seventeenth-century half), the intense final ensemble of Handel's Radamisto and a gentle but virtuoso aria for alto castrato from Amadigi.

Other pieces were clearly there for the singers to do their stuff, musical and theatrical, which they did in style although with a sense of style over substance that was inevitable given the contextless pieces. This was particularly the case in the final selection, a running-around-and-shouting version of the night at the inn from Philidor's Tom Jones. The singers ran around and sang at speed to the right people, who responded, but with no way of telling who was who, even if you knew what was going on, it was a clockwork flower.

Even so, there was much to enjoy in the singing and performances. A couple of the singers were so distinctive that they are likely to be loved and loathed in equal measure for the rest of their (probably highly successful) careers: Claire Debono has a voice exactly on the knife-edge between exquisitely focused and excruciatingly shrill. Her general manner was highly theatrical, in the grand style whose main operatic exponent these days is Angela Gheorghiu: she is clearly someone who holds the attention on stage even if you don't like her. The English tenor Andrew Tortise also has a flinty voice, but his performance of the Rameau aria combined passion and deep understanding of the drama and music. Less assertive, but perhaps the most skilled performer of the lost, the Spanish counter-tenor Xavier Sabata has a softish grained voice, no hoots but not much force, and an enormous theatrical talent. He effectively stood and delivered the Amadigi aria, effectively a concert aria since there is no clue as to its context in the opera, in a totally engaging way that really didn't need the nymphs tormenting him; and he was a highly comic drunk in the Philidor scene, taking a pratfall that the audience clearly believed was a serious accident. But then he has been in the Spanish equivalent of The Bill.

Do not be surprised, though, to see any of these seven young singers doing great things in the near and distant future.

HE Elsom



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