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December 13, 2013 7:49 pm
Attracting audiences with the familiar is a well-worn tactic, but the Theatre of the Ayre likes to do things differently. Ever since it was formed by the lute player Elizabeth Kenny, this early music ensemble has made an asset of obscurity. Its focus is rarefied music of the 17th century. Its weapons: a freshness of approach and a quasi-improvisatory freedom of delivery. Its Wigmore Hall concert devoted to the French Baroque composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier drew upon all of this.
The programme featured Charpentier’s pastoral opera Actéon, set against two Christmas-themed sacred works: Noëls pour les instruments and the miniature oratorio In Nativitatem Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Canticum. On paper it seemed a jarring juxtaposition. In performance, it illuminated elements of Charpentier’s compositional style, in particular his athletic choruses and his emphasis on vigorous dance rhythms – as prevalent in the sacred repertoire as they were in the secular.
Actéon was the main attraction. A compact retelling of a story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, it is about one hour long. But the emotional scope is far from small-scale, a point highlighted in the singers’ exhilarating performances. The soprano Sophie Daneman injected vitality into Diane, the goddess who wreaks vengeance on the hunter, Actéon, by transforming him into a stag. Paul Agnew brought elasticity – both emotional and vocal – to the title tenor role, while Anna Starushkevych (Junon) married her ripe mezzo-soprano voice with passion and authority. In such hands, these characters seemed both contemporary and believable.
The rest of the programme left slightly less of an impression. Noël: A minuit fut fait un réveil – a traditional piece that opened the concert – made an interesting point of comparison with Charpentier’s similarly rustic take on the Christmas noël form, Noëls pour les instruments. And certain moments of In Nativitatem etched themselves on the memory: Daneman’s live-wire reading of “Air de l’Ange”; Starushkevych’s sensuous interjection in the “Air et Choeur”. Other passages – Jonathan Sells’s underwhelming solo, for example – evaporated more quickly.
What glued it all together was the players’ graceful, unforced mastery of Charpentier’s musical idiom. Subtly directed by Kenny from the theorbo and guitar, they made a persuasive case for this dimly lit corner of the Baroque repertoire.
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