Les Arts Florissants has for several seasons created "gardens" where music and song are arranged, like bouquets, to delight the senses. This "garden" brought together the beauties of the English baroque, with highlights from Purcell, Locke, Gibbons, Handel, Arne, Ward and Dowland.
Like a formal themed garden the programe was set out in two distinct parts, "The Mystery of Music" and "A Night of Revels". The scene was set by The Curtain Tune, an instrumental prologue to Matthew Locke's The Tempest (1674) an early English semi-opera adapting the spirit of Lully and Moliere to British theatrical tradition. This Tempest was loosely based on The Tempest of William Shakespeare, where Nature, magic and art come together in glorious mayhem. As the orchestra played, the singers entered the hall, hidden in darkness, their voices ringing out clearly. Placing the two parts of Orlando Gibbons The Cries of London at the start and end of this "garden" gave it structure, but the choice was inspired. Gibbons depicts the sounds of London, market traders calling out their wares "Hot apple pies, hot, Hot pippin pies, hot. Fine pomegranates, fine....buy a rope,,,white cabbage, white young cabbage". Each brief cry follows its own rhythm and the interplay between these simple calls creates intricate polyphony. "Low " society transformed into "high" art. Thence to Handel "O the pleasures of the plains" from Handel's Acis and Galatea , Purcell's If music be the food of love Z379 and Thomas Tomkins' Music Divine.
Lest all be gracious artifice, Thomas Arne's The Singing Club, a nod to the English taste for communal singing. It's humorous - a good singer singing about a singer who can't sing too well. Then a return to fantasy, with Handel and Purcell songs about music and the muse St Cecilia. The songs also showcased individual instrumental colour - flutes, lutes, pipes and violins, paired with complementary voices. From Thomas Arne's The Fairy Prince, "Now all the air shall ring" came the rousing final chorus "God Save the King!" Though Arne gave us our national anthem, the king in this case wasn't George III but the king of Fairyland, since Arne's masque is an adaptation of Ben Jonson's Oberon, itself an adaptation of Shakespeare. One singer waved the Union Flag . I closed my eyes for a moment to concentrate on the music, but suddenly the whole audience burst out in a roar of spontaneous applause. The singers were also waving the flag of the European Union, and the audience loved it ! British culture connects to Europe. Were it not for Handel, Mendelssohn and many others, where would British music be ? And the flags were perfectly appropriate, since the kings of Arnes's time came from Hanover.
Pealing bells ushered in the "Night of Revels" with "O let the merry bells ring round" from Handel's L'Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato. Two Purcell songs about Night and dreams "See, even night herself is here" and "One Charming Night" from The Fairy Queen Z629 and John Ward's Come, sable night. Sophie Daneman's semi-staging created great atmosphere. A singer herself, she's worked with Les ArtsFlorissants for some years, creating sensitive semi staging. Here she had the singers carry lights in the darkness, so we could see as well as hear the patterns of interaction. Night, though, isn't just for sleep. Thus the group of songs for merriment, starting with "In these delightful,pleasure groves" from Purcell's The Libertine, or the Libertine destroyed Z600, followed by "Welcome black night" and later "Cease these false spirits" from John Dowland's A Pilgrim's Solace which is about, to put it coyly, married love. Two Bacchanals from Purcell (Z627 and Z360) release unruly spirits. Men are pitted against women in Purcell's 'Tis women makes us love Z281. "Tis women makes us love, 'tis love that makes us sad. 'Tis sadness makes us drink, and drinking makes us mad!" Delivered, of course, with great panache. Then the famous "Fairest Isle, all isles excelling" from Purcell's King Arthur or the British Worthy Z628, soothing and graceful. Night leads to morning and three songs of dawn from Handel and Purcell Then, back we are to London at the break of day, with the bustle of market traders and callers in Part 2 of Gibbon's The Cries of London.
This well-planned Garden of Delights came to life with Paul Agnew leading Les Arts Florissants.
Part of the Les Arts Flo mission is the nurturing of youthful talent : hence Le Jardin de Voix, the academy for young singers, whose soloists gave vivacious performances. Some are very promising and deserve a good future. Their names - Natasha Schnur, Natalie Pérez, Eva Zaïcik, James Way, Josep-Ramon Olivé and Padraic Rowan.
This review also appears in Opera Today. Please also see my review of Julian Prégardien and Teatro del Mondo : Orpheus : Songs, madrigals and arias from the 17th century and lots more on Les Arts Flo and Frech baroque on this site
Photo: Roger Thomas