No one seems to have a clear idea of why New York has failed to nurture its own world-class period-instrument ensemble. Specialist groups that explore the Baroque and Classical repertories abound in most major European cities, and they long ago produced their own star conductors who now have international careers: William Christie, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, John Eliot Gardiner, Gustav Leonhardt, Christopher Hogwood, Marc Minkowski, Frans Brüggen – the list goes on. Audiences are eager to hear them, too, judging from the crowds that materialize whenever these musicians come to call, and the favorite of the moment is William Christie. American-born, ironically enough, Christie is a harpsichordist-conductor-musicologist who had to settle in France in order to pursue his enthusiasms and find fame. Over the past several years, he and his band, Les Arts Florissants, have annually come to the Brooklyn Academy of Music with a new revelation, most recently Zoroastre, a tragédie en musique by Jean-Philippe Rameau.
In past visits to BAM, Les Arts Florissants has proved that the operas of Rameau, Lully, Handel, and other Baroque masters not only are full of musical riches but also bristle with theatrical excitement when staged with grace and imagination. This time, the budget apparently did not stretch so far, and we had to be content with a bare-bones concert presentation. No matter – with full attention on the composer’s score, the piece only seemed to grow in stature until a listener, this one at least, wondered why it had ever disappeared for so long in the first place. At its 1749 premiere in Paris, Zoroastre was not much liked, but Rameau’s revision of 1756, the edition Christie chose to perform, was a huge hit, perhaps as much for the spectacular Zeffirelli-like production as for the music. Essentially, the plot is a good-versus-evil conflict: Zoroastre representing the god of light and the sorcerer Abramane the spirit of darkness. Rameau seizes on this duality to create some of his most startling vocal and instrumental effects – the ecstatic scene of sun worship led by Zoroastre and his beloved Amélite followed by Abramane’s frenzied occult rituals draw on just about every technical and expressive device then available to an opera composer.
For centuries, foreigners have shown the French how their music should go, and Christie is just the latest in a distinguished line of inspired interlopers going back at least as far as Lully. By now, his musicians play Rameau as naturally as they breathe in and out, their period instruments reproducing an astonishing range of colors and timbres while floating the melodic lines over rhythmic patterns that are both supportively buoyant and bubbling with a propulsive life of their own. What struck me most about this performance, though, was the superb vocal work. The traditional French school of singing, they say, vanished long ago, and I suppose it did if we’re talking about voices properly groomed to address the standard repertory. The native singers chosen and trained by Christie, though, are just about perfect at what they do, however little use they may be to opera houses in need of a Carmen, Faust, or Manon. Their lean, cleanly focused sound commands Rameau’s vocal lines with easy authority while projecting all the expressive nuances that give this composer’s operas their special dramatic pungency. For Rameau and his contemporaries, the golden age of singing, it seems, is right now.
If America can claim one authentic instrument group to rival Christie’s famous minstrels, it is surely the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, based in San Francisco and internationally known thanks to its extensive tours and large catalogue of recordings on Harmonia Mundi and, more recently, the Conifer label. The orchestra’s leader since 1985 has been Nicholas McGegan, who hails from Britain, where musicologically informed maestros are thick on the ground – perhaps this conductor was lured here to explore virgin territory when the competition back home became too stiff. In any case, McGegan and the Philharmonia are now West Coast institutions, giving performances admired for their dramatic flair and instrumental panache. Arriving at the Brooklyn Academy of Music just a few days before Les Arts Florissants, the Philharmonia was in a mood to play Handel, offering two of the composer’s most heroically scaled oratorios: Saul and Hercules.
Although Handel never vanished from public consciousness to the degree that Rameau did, this composer’s extraordinary sense of theater has only lately begun to be appreciated once again, the interior dramas of his oratorios no less than the more extrovert operas. Saul is an especially fascinating study of two colliding powers, one descending (Saul) and the other on the rise (David), with many hapless creatures caught in between. McGegan’s orchestral and choral forces conveyed that conflict effectively enough, but their work overall seemed rather loose and several rehearsals away from being performance-ready. Among the variable soloists, the clear standout was countertenor David Daniels (David), pouring out gorgeous streams of tone and shaping each phrase with that musicianly elegance he commands so easily and naturally. Dominique Labelle (Michal) matched him note for note, but the other singers, headed by David Thomas’s scruffy and vocally undernourished Saul, were pretty weak.
Only a few minutes of Hercules passed before it became clear which oratorio had received more attention and thorough preparation. Since the entire performance had all the precise instrumental and choral focus that Saul lacked, a listener could settle back and fully savor Handel’s magnificent character portraits. Dejanira, Hercules’ wife, is the most potent, a woman torn by jealousy and fatally threatened by the beauteous young Iöle; Catherine Robbin’s vocally assured interpretation, if a trifle small-scale, left few facets of this troubled character unexplored. While listening appreciatively to the neat and stylishly correct singing of Julia Gooding (Iöle), Daniel Taylor (Lichas), Robert Breault (Hyllus), and Kevin McMillan (Hercules), I couldn’t help harking back to a more innocent time and a Hercules performance of my youth, a rare staging at La Scala in 1958, when the scene-chewing and Baroque-style-be-damned principals included Franco Corelli, Ettore Bastianini, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Fedora Barbieri, and Jerome Hines. That powerhouse lineup (Schwarzkopf excepted) might have been more comfortable performing Il Trovatore – the ideal Verdi cast, in fact, that opera houses can no longer seem to find – and, yes, they made hash of Handel. But today’s polite, mild-mannered American singers might take some instruction from them in matters of vocal projection and dramatic expression.