What’s not to love about Les Arts Florissants? Certainly everyone who packed into Tully on Saturday agrees, and the long ovation they gave them backs it up. Whether audience demand is finally meeting the supply of fine early music performances in town, as could be the case, or this old stuff just sounds refreshingly new, venerable groups such as Florissants give us just what people seem to want.
Onstage at Tully this weekend were Anacréon and Pygmalion by Rameau, two “actes de ballet,” which are shorter dramatic works with a preponderance of dance music. In this production the dancing was virtually eliminated, letting the listener bask in the beauty of the music and parse out the silly plots.
Anacréon was a Greek poet whose verses celebrate love and wine, but his fables do not present the most dramatically tense scenario to the librettist. Likewise with Pygmalion, whose story ignites more flames in women’s studies departments than on stage. But Rameau’s librettist Pierre-Joseph Bernard sends in several foils to spice up the plot: a group of jealous priestesses to scold Anacréon’s pleasures and the jilted human beloved of Pygmalion. These moments were often played out in emotional lines of recitative, accompanied without hesitation by the sensitive continuo players.
The avuncular Alain Buet was in fine, if somehow nervous form as Anacréon, perhaps a reflection of the production concept more than anything else. Jean-Yves Ravoux, the person credited with “On-stage Movement” strove to make the most of a dance show that does not employ dancers. Choristers suggested characterizations, and simple staging added life to the story. For example, when the Statue (she has no other name) comes to life, Pygmalion gently helps her as she learns to walk. But without the benefit of period costume or at least an explanation of some of the smaller characters, it wasn’t always easy for the viewer to always know the qualities of each deity represented, or if the chorus was supposed to be a throng of priestesses, revellers, or bystanders. In their tuxedoes and black gowns, they looked like an opera chorus attending a gala. Solo arias that praised the triumph of Love (and there were several of them) were barely staged, which made sense, but seemed to leave the soloists high and dry, unsure whether to comport themselves for a concert or an opera.
But still, the happy effect was that the audience could focus on the energy and variety of the music, played with nuance and joy by William Christie’s highly polished band. Rameau’s music is mercurial and full of contrasts, from the deep emotion of Anacréon’s entreaty to the gods, the playful dances of the Statue learning to move, to the melodramatic sound painting of a thunderstorm. The band handled the lightening fast runs and leaps in their fleet way, without the lightness and grace that modern violins are not built to achieve. Particularly notable were the transverse flutists, Serge Saitta and Charles Zebley. Mr. Christie conducts simply, keeping the arm waving to a minimum and letting his collaborators play chamber music.
Each member of the vocal ensemble sounded like they could have been a soloist in their own right, yet managed to blend as a group and convey different moods with vocal color. Particular notable soloists included soprano Hanna Bayodi-Hirt, whose fleet coloratura and clear high notes rang beautifully in her roles as the Statue and Amour. Tenor Ed Lyon made an impression as Pygmalion, both for his dramatic interpretation and his easy tone.
With limited staging we could also enjoy the ridiculousness of the libretto as it sounds in English, such as when the Statue addresses Pygmalion: “What is this object that enchants my soul by looking at it,” to which he replies: “you alone, beloved object….” At least in this retelling, both women and men are objectified.
The joyful feeling of experiencing two tableaus with happy endings was heightened by the free glasses of champagne offered in the lobby, which had been transformed into a lounge where concertgoers (mostly those without grey hair) lingered and chatted. Here’s an idea for Tully: now that this space has been transformed from Lincoln Center’s coat closet to the airy, welcoming space it is, leave the box office open after shows. An audience this energized would have jumped at the chance to buy another ticket on the spot.