MUSIC / Worlds of the flesh: Adrian Jack on a Charpentier double-bill from Les Arts Florissants at the Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
Marc-Antoine Charpentier is best known for his church music, but he also collaborated with Moliere and his acting troupe. The Paris-based vocal and instrumental group Les Arts Florissants, founded in 1979 by the American-born William Christie, takes its name from one of Charpentier's operas, and on Wednesday 16 of them squeezed on to the Wigmore Hall's small stage (Christie at the harpsichord) and regaled a capacity audience with Charpentier's dramatic divertissement Les Plaisirs de Versailles, and his incomplete opera, La Descente d'Orphee aux enfers.

Both works date from the 1680s. The divertissement is a frothy entertainment in which Music and Conversation argue rival claims, enacted by two female singers, one graceful and lyrical (Sophie Daneman, who had few consonants but a ripe voice), the other incisive (the very lively Katalin Karolyi). There are minor parts for the god of festive mirth, Comus (Jean-Francois Gardeil, suitably blustering) and a character representing 'Le Jeu', or gaming, assigned to that sport of the French Baroque, the haut-contre or very high, light tenor (Francois Piolino, I think, although the programme gave no details of who sang what). Everyone joins in the choruses.

Somewhat arbitrarily, Music and Conversation settle their argument in deference to the King, and the work ends with a dutiful chorus in which he is apostrophised. The singers performed from memory and the production's tableau-like style, with the instrumental players ranged behind the singers, was directed by Christophe Galland, less as an exercise in academic reconstruction than a complacently charming modern equivalent.

La Descente d'Orphee allowed rather more expressive scope since its music is considerably more varied than the elegantly pattering declamation of Les Plaisirs. It begins shortly before Eurydice (Sophie Daneman) is bitten by a snake, and breaks off in its second act after Orpheus has charmed Pluto into releasing her.

Again, the piece was acted with precision - all ingratiating gestures and dreamy smiles, although in the part of Pluto the bass Fernand Bernadi, with his cavernous eyes, posed like a louring effigy to splendid effect. The honeyed tones of the tenor Paul Agnew were quite enough to soften Pluto's heart, although the girl who sang Proserpine, who encourages Orpheus in his efforts, had rather a small, thin voice, the group's only weak link.

The audience's enthusiasm suggested that if this music is an acquired taste, quite a few have acquired it. But it still seems much less rewarding than Charpentier's church music, and though designed for pleasure not spiritual elevation, far less sensuous. La Descente bears the burden of its story lightly enough but, in dispatching its text so swiftly, it barely manages to blossom as melody and leaves a rather generalised impression of charm.

Sponsored by Pechiney UK Ltd as part of the Wigmore Hall's French Season