As if it were written yesterday

The early music expert William Christie and an ensemble of students are reviving one of Lully's masterpieces.
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The Independent Culture
EVERY MUSIC student knows of Jean-Baptiste Lully, the Italian immigrant who composed spectacular stage works for Louis XIV and died from the results of a self-inflicted foot wound while beating out time with his conductor's staff.

The standard biography is certainly memorable. But what of the man's music? Until recently only a few of his operas had been recorded, often in edited versions and with little feeling for style and colour. Young singers, especially those raised on Mozart and Puccini, could easily be forgiven for bypassing the Lullian tragedie en musique with its daunting form of prologue, five acts and a plot rooted in classical mythology.

While Lully's place in history may have engaged scholars, his work has appeared deadly dull to many others. Not so William Christie, the chief revisionist in the modern Lully revival, who has checked ingrained prejudices and won new converts to French baroque opera with his early music group, Les Arts Florissants. His latest, and arguably his most influential, exploration of the composer's work focuses on Thesee, a striking mix of dramatic music, Baroque spectacle and comic diversion.

The traditional Christie approach of ample rehearsals followed by a busy tour is part of the Thesee parcel. But the conductor has temporarily abandoned the professionals of Les Arts Florissants for a company of students drawn from the Paris and Lyons Conservatoires, the Royal Conservatory in The Hague and London's Guildhall School of Music, a projet pedagogique held under the banner of the Academie Baroque Europeenne d'Ambronay.

"This music is young," says Christie. "If it's played and sung properly, it sounds as if it was written yesterday. With Thesee, the audience will discover a young work, which is why they'll love hearing it performed by young people."

The Thesee roadshow arrives in London next Monday, the final stop in an eight-city tour. When I met Christie soon after the show's Lyons dress rehearsal, he immediately confessed that such concentrated work with students had supplied some of his most rewarding musical experiences.

He recalls earlier educational projects, inspired by John Hosier, former principal of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and his counterpart in The Hague. First came a student production of Purcell's The Fairy Queen, then Lully's Atys, a concert version of Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie, and Charpentier's David et Jonathas, Christie's first collaboration with the Festival d'Ambronay and its canny director, Alain Brunet.

"Thank God they appeared on the scene," says Christie. "The conservatoires weren't equipped to deal with the preparation of an enormous work and then sell it to the outside world. The critics who come to follow this kind of work say `My God' every time, since they can't believe that students can achieve professional results so quickly."

Thesee should inspire a comparable suspension of critical disbelief, with fine solo performances, excellent choral singing, alert playing and Javier Lopez Pinon's inventive choreography among the production's plus points.

Besides learning the notes and assimilating performance conventions required to enliven Lully's 1675 work, the Ambronay academicians have been coached in the subtle art of 17th-century French rhetoric, Baroque stage gesture and musico-poetic relationships.

"It's a unique experience," observes the Guildhall-based violist Lucy Theo. "The Academie gives instrumentalists the chance to work with singers, to make chamber music with them. This is about using your mind and involving your soul. I didn't realise until I came here how starved I'd been of this sort of music-making. With Lully, you have to come out from behind the screen that falls when you play so much of the modern orchestral repertoire; if you don't get totally involved, then there's no chance of reaching the spirit of this score."

Thesee held its place in the repertoire of the Paris Opera from 1675 until 1767, was revived again in 1779, and has since remained silent. Christie breaks into French to describe the contradiction of Lully's apparently simple-looking music and its "cent-mille richesses" in performance. His interpretation with the Academie is underpinned by the support of 95 young musicians determined to do their best, regardless of experience, individual accomplishments or educational background. "Ultimately, the camaraderie, the esprit de corps, the solidarite is so strong, everybody wants each other to succeed. There are people here at very different levels and ages, who are open to a style of music that's not common to the old music studied at conservatoires."

Concessions to youth and musical compromise are alien to Christie's student collaborations; Thesee, therefore, is offered almost uncut. Anything less, says the conductor, would obscure the dramatic power of Lully's work. "The whole point of our Academie is to show that you can't play this music unless you have a firm understanding of linguistic priorities and the way in which the words inform the music."

At auditions Christie exercised positive discrimination to ensure a fair mix from the different conservatoires, although the strengths of particular institutions are reflected in the profile of successful candidates. Almost all the company's tenors and a high percentage of other voices have been drawn from the Guildhall School, where light-voiced, flexible and musical singers are in healthy supply; meanwhile, Thesee's large continuo group is dominated by players from The Hague and the Paris Conservatoire. "I must say that the mainstream of vocal teachers in England are more favourably disposed to early music than their counterparts anywhere else in Europe," says Christie.

Sophie Karthauser, who sings the role of Aegle at the Barbican, took a break from the Guildhall's opera course to join the Ambronay Academie. Although early music is not central to her studies, the Belgian soprano explains that she feels at home working with Christie and his Thesee team. "I really like Javier's approach to the staging. He first asked us, `Are you actors or singers?', and then said we need, above all, to be actors to deliver this tragedie lyrique. Projecting the text and its emotions are so important to what we are doing here. The way that we worked on stage was completely natural for me, so I didn't need to add anything outside my experience in opera."

By contrast, the early music specialist Marit van Delft, one of three Hague Conservatory lutenists in the continuo group, has never played in a full-length Baroque stage work. "Bill [Christie] says that you have to be like an actor with your instrument, which is something I've never done before." One of the biggest tests, she explains, is to sustain concentration during a piece lasting more than two-and-a-half hours. "You have to find a middle way between chamber music-making and just playing the notes. It's incredible how we've reached an understanding as an ensemble."

According to Christie, the Academie's success is measurable not in terms of favourable press reviews or appreciative audiences. What counts, he says, is that every student, whether outstanding or average, leaves with fresh ideas and a sense of achievement.