A musical celebration of Jean-Baptiste Lully, Louis
XIV’s favorite composer, graced the stage of the Théâtre
des Champs-Elysées in Paris last week. Called Les Divertissements
de Versailles, it was meant to recreate a taste of a gala musical
evening at the court of the Sun King. Devised by conductor William Christie
and performed by his orchestra and chorus, Les Arts Florrisants, it
is a selection of key scenes from Lully’s lyric works. Semi-staged,
with costumes and dancers, by the Peniche Opera’s Mireille Larroche,
it was an impressive display of Lully’s enduring musical value.
On the face of it, it sounds like the type of program
done a few decades ago that assumes the audience is just making the
acquaintance of the composer. But more than a few in the sophisticated
audience at the first night were asking whether this was necessary:
with the strong assemblage of talent on stage, why not just perform
a complete opera?
Maybe Christie is a victim of his own success. Last
year, celebrating his 20th year as the founder and conductor
of Les Arts Florissants, he was appropriately honored for leading the
French music scene in the rediscovery of their Baroque musical heritage.
His single-handed rescue of Marc-Antoine Charpentier from the musical
dustbin and his acclaimed productions and widely sold recordings of
Lully, Desmarest and Rameau, among others, has made him among the best
known interpreter of his period. He inspired a generation of musicians
and singers and historically informed performance became commonplace
and even mainstream in France.
Now, hardly a week goes by in Paris without a Baroque
original instrument performance of high quality on some stage or other.
A group of young conductors like Marc Minkowski, the Belgian counter-tenor-turned-conductor
René Jacobs, Emmanuelle Haïm and Christophe Rousset have
all helped to expand the list of available recordings of French Baroque
music. Some are branching out to the classical period and beyond (witness
Minkowski’s recent forays into the world of Offenbach.)
Christie is keeping focused on the original mission
and continues to patiently build audiences for the French Baroque masters.
For this evening, he has assembled an impressive array of vocal talent.
The popular soprano Sophie Daneman sang arias of several heroines from
operas like Le Mariage forcé, Atys and L’Amour
médecin. A newcomer, the Israeli soprano Rinat Shaham, made
a strong impression with her arias from Armide. There was forceful,
if a bit rough-edged, singing from baritone Olivier Lallouette, who,
singing his two arias in the title role of Roland, showed that
Lully wrote some powerful, almost Verdian, roles for the baritone voice.
Paul Agnew contributed nicely with a clear and focused
tenor and the other predominately French vocalists sang with a precise
diction and purity of tone so necessary for the music and the texts
(by Molière and Quinault). Maestro Christie kept the orchestra
textures clear and the music lively and the Choir of Les Arts Florrisants
sang with spirit. The costumes, borrowed from the Opéra de Paris
and the Center of Baroque Music at Versailles, added to the ambiance
but the two ballet dancers remained distinctly earthbound the entire
In April and May, this program will circulate to several
cities in France as well as London, Salamanca, Vienna and Leipzig. The
program notes also promise a recording of "Great Scenes of Lully"
which will be available in association with the Spring tour and is likely
containing much of the same music as in these Paris appearances. For
those music lovers not yet familiar with Lully, there could be no better
Jean-Baptiste Lully, Les divertissements de Versailles, Théâtre
des Champs-Elysées, Paris, January 11, 14 and 15, 2002