A Bold Blend of Baroque Chamber Opera

Paris-based period-instrument ensemble Les Arts Florissants intoxicates a Wine Country audience

By Greg Cahill

Les Arts Florissants
November 10, 2017
Green Music Center,
Joan and Sanford I. Weill Hall
Sonoma State University
Rohnert Park, California

Close your eyes and you were transported to 17th-century Europe by the pulse of 300-year-old music played on period instruments. Open your eyes and you were immersed in the acoustic splendor of Weill Hall on the campus of Sonoma State University, just a mile from the western edge of the deadly wildfires that raged last month through Northern California’s Wine Country. Onstage, the Paris-based chamber ensemble Les Arts Florissants magnificently performed Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s 17th-century masterpiece Actéon, a lyrical opera that tells the tragic tale of an ill-fated and innocent hunter turned into a stag after angering the goddess Diana, upon whom he glimpses as she baths in the woods. The opera employs the classical device of tragedie en musique established by Jean-Baptiste Lully, the Italian-born French composer who spent most of his career in the court of King Louis XIV.


The ensemble programmed Charpentier’s 1684 work with the English composer Henry Purcell’s beautiful 1689 lyrical opera Dido & Aeneas, which is set in the aftermath of the Trojan Wars and includes a reference to the incident described in Actéon.

The operas clock in at about an hour each.

Charpentier and Purcell were known for sacred as well as secular works, and these powerful operas evoke an achingly spiritual quality, as evidenced by the elegiac aria that concludes Purcell’s lamentful Dido & Aeneas.


This pared-down, touring version of the ensemble Les Arts Florissants, created in 1979 and taking its name from another Charpentier opera, proved intoxicating under the direction of the ensemble’s founder and harpsichordist, the famed musicologist William Christie, a pioneer in the rediscovery of French chamber music. Weill Hall, financed in part with local tech money, is fashioned after the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer retreat in Tanglewood, Massachusetts. The hall proved ideal for these minimally staged performances—the L.A. Times complained the night before that cavernous Disney Hall had swallowed up this production. By comparison, the intimate Wine Country venue permitted the audience to appreciate the subtle nuances of the performance, and Les Arts Florissants is all about nuance, from the use of gut strings and Baroque bows to the way in which the pronunciation of the French language blends with the basso continuo. The vocal ensemble featured eight singers, including the exquisite French mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre, baritone Renato Dolcini, and Belgian tenor Reinoud Van Mechelen. The instrumentalists included virtuoso violinists Emmanuel Resche and Théotime Langlois de Swarte, violist Sophie de Bardonneche, cellist Alix Verzier, theorboist Thomas Dunford, oboist Pier Luigi Fabretti, and Christie.

While the overtures and a few other musical sections employed the full instrumental ensemble, there were but a few solos. The four string players were prominent nonetheless, frequently performing as a quartet or quintet with the harpsichord or theorbo (as during Purcell’s brisk sailor dance scene). The basso continuo most often was arranged in trios, notably featuring Verzier’s remarkably punchy viola de gamba, Christie’s lightly played harpsichord, and Dunford’s guitar-like theorbo.

By and large, the strings were dry, using little vibrato and minimal ornamentation, an effect that complemented the singers.

The chance to savor such a fine French instrumental and vocal ensemble under the guidance of the celebrated Christie, who has an intuitive connection with this music yet rarely performs these days, was a cherished experience.

For those interested in exploring the ensemble’s arrangements of Actéon, which have been recorded on the Harmonia Mundi label, the sheet music is included in the Les Arts Florissants Collection published by Les Éditions des Abbesses.