Music review

Hong Kong Arts Festival 2015

A fascinating and gorgeously sung journey through early opera

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 March, 2015, 1:11pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 March, 2015, 1:11pm

William Christie and Le Jardin des Voix Academy Soloists

with the Orchestra of Les Arts Florissants

Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall

Reviewed: March 3

It was fascinating to hear opera as we know it emerge over two centuries of music as presented in this sparkling concert. The Les Arts Florissants orchestra played with sprightly vigour as accompanists to the young virtuoso soloists from the Jardin des Voix Academy, who sang and acted in a semi-staged performance.

Early music drama in the late 1500s and early 1600s focused on words, changing tempos and often plunging into dark harmony to follow the murky twists of the drama. By Haydn and Mozart’s day the pieces had gelled into arias with bolder outlines and infectious tunes.

That said, a highlight of the concert was the older-style solo cantata by Niccolo Porpora, one of Haydn’s teachers, “Oh se fosse il mio core,” brilliantly sung by countertenor Carlo Vistoli. The intricate lines and elaborate ornaments did not obscure the poignant expression of “Ah, if only my heart were free to give away.” The countertenor voice is in the soprano register and Vistoli’s high notes shone out with mesmerising power.

The phenomenal singers all had gorgeous voices and vivid stage presence. They conveyed the meaning of the Italian lyrics with their voices, gestures and simple props. From languid to rapid-fire, from comic to touching, their command of the words and music was impressive. The well-rehearsed staging never overshadowed the music – the delightful impression was of intelligent and talented students horsing around and enjoying themselves.

The orchestra was seated at the back of the stage, so its sound was less prominent – a bit disappointing at first but admirably suited for accompaniment. The wooden flutes had a sweet dove-like coo and the low harpsichord, bassoon and bass were surprisingly penetrating. William Christie conducted with dash and vigour. He was clearly proud of the Academy singers whom he has trained so impeccably.

Soprano Lucia Martin-Carton was another highlight, with her polished, sweet and glowing voice. Her solos gripped the audience with impromptu-seeming ornaments. She also is an actress who can command the stage with the grace of a dancer. Lea Desandre, mezzo-soprano, had an intense stage presence and a big, radiant voice that performed feats of runs and trills. At times it oddly faded in and out as if she is still learning to use this powerful instrument.

Bass John Taylor Ward had a clear, ringing voice and a winning comic presence. Renato Dolcini had a commanding baritone voice with a terrific trill. Nicholas Scott, tenor, was scarily good at acting pompous and sang with dramatic force.

Hearing the later operatic style of Haydn and Mozart emerge was a thrill and the second half of the programme brought the excitement up a notch. The quartet from Haydn’s La Canterina made me pine to hear the whole opera. The final piece, "Son confuse e stupefatto" from Haydn’s opera Orlando Paladino for all six singers and orchestra, was a catchy and rousing finale. The three encores gave us a last taste of the music, from the light-and-shade older madrigals to the later brilliant ensemble numbers, and the audience left sated and happy.