★★★★★ Lully joins the circus to make a divertissement fit for a king

City Recital Hall, Angel Place
July 22, 2015

It’s been a few centuries since the world of classical music lost touch with the idea of entertainment for entertainment’s sake. Back in the 17th century, Louis XIV (aka The Sun King) would happily arrange a day or six of terpsichorean delights – he even frocked up and joined in, allegedly having 80 ballet roles in his repertoire. At his pleasure palace of Versailles there were fireworks, walking sculptures, talking trees and even a life-size papier maché whale, all going off to the music of Jean Baptiste Lully. Those were the days, eh?

If that kind of Baroque knees-up floats your boat – and why shouldn’t it? – the latest outing from the ambitious Australian Brandenburg Orchestra is a must see. ABO Artistic Director Paul Dyer has collaborated with Yaron Lifschitz, AD of Brisbane-based circus company, Circa, to offer a delicious confection that appeals to the ears and eyes at the same time. Describing it as a pasticcio (a work made up of music cherry-picked from several composers), it might more ‘Gallically’ be described as a divertissement, a spectacle that diverts and delights over a couple of hours of escapist pleasure.

We don’t join the circus until the second half, but there are plenty of musical thrills and spills in the first half as well. Setting off with a bang, the Overture to Rameau’s Naïs with it’s racing strings, trumpets and kettledrums is a terrific curtain raiser. Excerpts from the same composer’s Les Indes Galantes follows, an opera-cum-balletic romp that features musical Turks, Peruvians and Native Americans (there’s even a volcanic eruption in one act!). This is first-class music that stands alone quite happily and receives a first-class performance from the Brandenburgers, lead by Paul Dyer on harpsichord with the excellent Shaun Lee-Chen borrowed from the West Australian Symphony Orchestra as Guest Concertmaster. Among many felicities, Melissa Farrow and Mikaela Oberg’s duetting flutes, some equally blissful oboes from Kristen Barry and Owen Watkins, and a fine turn by Brian Nixon beating time on an array of period percussion stand out. As ever, the toe-tapping Native American dance (called Les Sauvages by Rameau), proves a real crowd-pleaser.

For the Pasticcio we get to hear more Rameau, plus some Lully, Tessier, Marais, Boesset and Cavalieri. Musically, the second half adds three excellent singers from the ABO Choir and French soprano Claire Lefilliâtre, for many years a member of Vincent Dumestre’s envelope-pushing vocal ensemble Le Poème Harmonique (search out their wonderful CDs, mostly on the Alpha label). The ensemble singing is a real delight, especially as Lefilliâtre proves more than happy to mingle with the circus performers, ensuring a perfectly integrated entertainment.

Leaving the best till last, the six circus performers are an absolute blast. Their well spliced ‘turns’ include juggling, tumbling and a gasp-inducing balancing act involving an acrobat handstanding on a chair on a chair on a chair, all stood on four glass bottles! The finale where a girl who must have pelvic muscles of steel spins what looks like eight hoops simultaneously from every available limb leaves you agog. With costumed musicians processing through the hall and daring gymnastic displays going off a hair’s breadth from the harpsichord this a beautifully-choreographed affair.

French Baroque is an evening of pure entertainment where perfect musical standards are matched by the kind of visual delights that one suspects would have held a Sun King’s attention. Go see! And as Edith Piaf would have said: “Bravo pour le clown!”

French Baroque is in Sydney and Melbourne until August 1.

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