- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 4, 2004

Perhaps one wintry morning many years ago, young Buffalo, N.Y., native William Christie looked out his window at the latest blizzard howling off Lake Erie’s windswept shores and thought, “There’s got to be a better place than this.”

There was.

After studying music at Harvard and Yale universities, Mr. Christie packed his bags and headed for France in 1971. He has lived there ever since. In 1979, he founded Les Arts Florissants, a vocal and instrumental ensemble primarily dedicated to reviving and authentically performing neglected works of the French baroque period.

Now in its 25th year, the much-recorded troupe made an all-too-brief appearance at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater on Tuesday evening, highlighting two rarely performed short operas of Marc-Antoine Charpentier as part of the center’s ongoing Festival of France. Both operas were semi-staged in a production halfway between concert opera and real opera. Surrounded by the instrumentalists, the male vocalists were clad in casual tuxedos and the women in flowing pastel dresses.

Rightly or wrongly, Charpentier (1643-1704) is sometimes regarded as an also-ran in the classical music firmament. Overshadowed by more famous French composers such as Lully and Rameau, he had his patrons but never really scored a hit with the Sun King, Louis XIV. Mr. Christie has proved to be one of his champions, bringing some of the composer’s most delightful works back before the public.

Tuesday’s program featured two of Charpentier’s short operas, the first of which was titled “Les Arts Florissants” (“The Flourishing” or “Flowering Arts”). This paean of praise to human creativity, which, indeed, did flourish under Louis XIV, inspired the name for Mr. Christie’s talented musicians. It’s less an opera, really, than a musical skit of moderate length. The soloists embody each of the arts including Music, Poetry, Painting, and Architecture.

Feathers are ruffled when the surly character of Discord enters the scene, ruining the artistic karma. But Peace appears and banishes Discord, allowing the arts to flourish once again. Clearly for Charpentier, the Sun King, by squashing all domestic and external threats, has enabled a quiet place for the arts to blossom unhindered.

All of this is obviously puffery to flatter a would-be patron, but it’s nice music nonetheless, providing the ensemble’s youngish singers an opportunity to demonstrate beautiful legato lines and a mastery of complex ornamentation. Particularly notable for their luminous instruments and seemingly effortless control were sopranos Sunhae Im as Poetry and Sophie Daneman as Peace.

The second work on the program, “La Descente d’Orphee aux Enfers” (“The Descent of Orpheus Into Hades”) was more serious and substantial. Based on the tale from Greek mythology, the opera commences with the untimely death of the beautiful Euridice and the despair of her fiance, Orpheus. Heading for the lower depths in search of his beloved, Euridice’s musical suitor charms Pluto into restoring her to him in the land of the living as long as he doesn’t look back upon exiting hell. The opera ends as Orpheus leaves Hades with hope in his heart.

The high point of this production was the incredible mastery of tenor Paul Agnew, who was sensational in the challenging role of Orpheus. His mastery of baroque vocal subtlety and nuance was miraculous, his phrasing sheer perfection. It was a low-key, affecting, yet thrilling performance that won well-deserved plaudits from an enthusiastic audience.

With Maestro Christie conducting from the keyboards (harpsichord and small organ), the instrumental forces turned in a fine interpretation of both works. Aside from some ineffective choreography in the first opera, this was a beautifully modulated connoisseur’s evening of almost unbearably charming music that deserves to be heard far more often than it is.

***

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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