"In these fair surroundings, be silent now, my friends! Lully invites you here: make way for dancing, for singing and for beauty. Imagine Versailles..." So, in stylish French, the beaming William Christie bade a capacity Barbican audience welcome to Les Divertissements de Versailles, amidst the serried ranks of his 24-voice Choir and 36-piece period Orchestra of Les Arts Florissants, and a bevy of classical and allegorical singers and dancers, Cupids, Furies and Harlequins, all accurately dressed from costume books for the extravagant entertainments of Louis XIV.
Admittedly it would have taken more even than such eloquent words out of Molière quite to banish the naff reality of the sub-modernist woodwork that surrounds the Barbican stage. Then, too, there was the little matter of Lully himself: had awareness of his less than likeable personality tended, in the past, to affect our hearing of his music as merely forceful, square and charmless – lacking the richness of his great French contemporary Charpentier, whose work he attempted to suppress, or the piquancy of our own Purcell who pinched several of his better ideas?
Overturning such assumptions has been part of Christie's aim more or less since he founded Les Arts Florissants back in 1979. Indeed, Les Divertissements de Versailles, which he and his director Mireille Larroche have put together from various ballets and operas and are currently touring in connection with its release on disc by Erato, seems specifically designed to demonstrate Lully's true variety of expression and form. And the range from the rumbustious hunting chorus of the Pan and Syrinx scene in Isis, by way of Euridice's soulful lament with violin obbligato from the Ballet des Muses – beautifully sung by Sophie Daneman and handsomely danced by Jean-Charles di Zazzo – to the strutting dramatics of the heroine's revenge scene from Armide, declaimed by Rinat Shaham, proves quite something.
But what the show suggests most strikingly is that Lully commanded a largeness of scale beyond any of his contemporaries – and not only in such set-pieces as the haunting choral and orchestral passacaglia-apostrophe to Love from Armide which rounded the evening off. The highpoint was the baritone Olivier Lallouette's enactment of the extraordinary scene of betrayal and madness from Roland – a cumulative arioso culminating in an electrifying collision of fast and slow music, sustained over some 10 minutes. It would seem that the young Florentine dancer and player the future Sun King first met in his teens and promoted to supreme master of ceremonies was genuinely worthy of his trust.Reuse content