Marc-Antoine Charpentier: Actéon
Henry Purcell: Dido and Aeneas
Paul Agnew (Actéon), Sophie Daneman (Diane/Belinda), Stéphanie D‘Oustrac (Junon/Dido), Nicholas Rivenq (Aeneas), Michel Puissant (Sorceress), Laurent Slaars (Sailor) Gaëlle Méchaly (Second woman), Camilla Johansen, Cyril Auvity, Bertrand Chuberre, David Le Monnier, Vincent Lièvre-Picard
William Christie (conductor), Vincent Boussard (semi-staging director)
Les Arts Florissants
Charpentier’s Actéon and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas make a handy double bill/ They are slightly shorter together than the average opera in total and neatly contrast French and English styles, pastoral myth and the profoundly personal in the shadow of history. And the middle act of Dido is a hunt that includes a short song about Actaeon. Charpentier’s opera is, like its Ovidian source, formal and controlled. It is not trivial -- the transformation of human into beast is witty but very moving, and the moment when the chorus angrily interrupts Juno is almost shocking -- but its emotional impact is channelled through the rigid conventions of courtly music. Purcell’s, although possibly written for the court and certainly influenced by the masque, uses more extended and less constrained vocal lines, and constructs a duet like a realistic lovers’ row, to suggest emotions much closer to the edge. But then Virgil is potentially much more emotionally explosive than Ovid.
William Christie’s ensemble, Les Arts Florissants, are ideally suited to present this double bill, and not only because of their Anglophone-French background. Their period expertise extends beyond technical mastery to a grasp of courtly style, relaxed excellence that avoids icy perfection. This even goes as far as the ability to wear haut couture dresses and stand in unobtrusively pictorial groups while the instrumentalists accept applause. But the main benefit of their ease with the music is a sense of pure, civilised enjoyment.
Vincent Boussard’s semi-staging had the singers in Actéon start sitting on randomly arranged chairs which became the trees of the forest as they became the nymphs of Diana (tenors included) and Actaeon’s fellow hunters. Gaëlle Méchaly was a frolicsome, but ladylike, nymph, doing an authentic looking dance while singing, but not making it look too easy. Sophie Daneman was slightly too slick as Diana, while Stéphanie D‘Oustrac was a baleful presence throughout in a red dress and veil, forceful in her final outburst of arbitrary rage as Juno (Actaeon is killed because Juno hates all Thebans, since Europa, Jupiter’s current mistress, is from Thebes). Paul Agnew was a sporty Actaeon, very moving in his final transformation.
Dido presents richer range of characters, and of musical forms, and the singers produced a much more human performance, having fun with the funny bits and engaging fully in the painful main plot.
Laurent Slaars sang the jolly sailor in a more plausible Cockney accent than most Anglophones manage in the role. Michel Puissant was an extremely camp Sorceress, all wobbles and cackles. He seems to have seen Mark Morris’s version, but lacked Morris‘ cool. The witches were relentlessly comic, but not particularly funny, especially in the final chorus of act 2 (In our deep vaulted cell, reconstructed by Bruce Wood), where they pestered the musicians and cackled so much you couldn’t hear the music.
Daneman was sympathetic as Belinda, and Méchaly was again elegant as the Second Woman. Nicholas Rivenq was a testosterone-heavy but sonorous Aeneas, obviously not reliable. But again, Stéphanie D‘Oustrac dominated. She has a bright but substantial mezzo voice that might be too large for this sort of music, but which was powerfully expressive. She started intensely in A, Belinda, and ended overwhelmingly in When I am laid in earth, hitting at your heart with the second pair of "remember me"s fortissimo before dying away in despair. The cupids in the final chorus seemed twee after that.