Baroque bouquets aplenty, if only the garden had been a little smaller.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
March 12, 2015

It’s been a great time of late for Australian early music fans. Previously this week, Harry Christophers and his elite Sixteen took Sydneysiders to choral heaven thanks to (among others) the Italians Palestrina and Allegri. Now, another legend, William Christie, came to town with his majestic ensemble Les Arts Florissants to take us on a ramble through an Italian garden in the company of a whole host of Italians such as Stradella and Vivaldi, plus a few ring-in Italianophiles like Handel, Haydn and Mozart.

I’ll get my gripe out of the way first. The Concert Hall is too big a venue for these forces. What should have been an intimate garden felt more often like a piece of parkland. Sure, William Christie may be the musical equivalent of Capability Brown, but that wasn’t always enough. The band was superb, playing with dash and vigour. The conducting was magnificent, the maestro shaping each offering to perfection and balancing the blend of warm strings and flawless woodwind with grace and style. Too often, though, the inner detail (so frequently the revelation of period instruments) was muddied by the washy acoustic. I understand the economics – the house was pretty near full – but by the end one longed to sit through it all over again in City Recital Hall. Whinge over.

The conceit of the attractive and imaginative program was a series of Italian works tailor-made to show off the exciting young voices of Le Jardin des Voix, Christie’s impressive vocal académie founded in 2002 and already the proven breeding ground for a number of today’s most rapidly rising stars – singers like Andrew Tortise, Xavier Sabata, Maarten Engeltjes and Sonya Yoncheva. The six singers coped admirably with a wide-ranging potpourri of hits and rarities spanning several centuries, from early madrigals by Banchieri (1604) to full blown Classical operas by Haydn, Cimarosa and Mozart (a delightful ‘insert’ aria from 1788 quoting from his Jupiter Symphony). If they were sometimes overwhelmed by the orchestra in the weightier orchestrations of the second half, that was likely the fault of the acoustic challenge (see previous whinge).

The first half was a lesson in the ups and downs of love (particularly the latter, though mostly in ways involving a great deal of fun). Les Arts Florissant’s Associate Paul Agnew and his colleague Sophie Daneman have cunningly crafted a program that weaves a seamless tapestry from a wide range of composers and gives each singer a chance to show their strong suit. Beginning with a delicious madrigal in praise of zabaglione, the players took us through a clever sequence of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy who sings like a girl loses the plot etc. One particularly neat juxtaposition allowed us to see how both Handel and Vivaldi tackeld Orlando’s famous mad scene virtually back to back.

It’s invidious to single out individuals when so much of the pleasure revolved around tightly disciplined ensemble work and evident pleasure being shared between colleagues, but it would be wrong not to mention Lucía Martin-Carton’s bell-like soprano and winning stage presence in a cantata by Stradella as well as Handel’s Lascia la spina (the latter beautifully shaped by Christie – an avuncular, supportive presence throughout). Vivaldi’s radiant aria, Care pupille, was stylishly finessed by tenor Nicholas Scott, but the most mature performance, for me, was counter-tenor Carlo Vistoli who exhibited considerable dramatic skills and a rich voice, fully up to the challenging gear changes in Handel’s Ah! Stigie larve!

The second half was structured around that slightly tired old saw, the vanities and inanities of opera and opera singers. Beginning promisingly with a choice excerpt from a work by Cimarosa (along similar lines to Mozart’s not-as-funny-as-it-thinks-it-is Impresario), the invented plot with its preening tenor, duplicitous maestro and rival donne rambled along raising a few laughs but rather outstaying its welcome in comparison to the first half. Still, it gave mezzo Lea Desandre a chance to show off some nice comedic skills to complement her attractive voice and concluded with a rollicking vaudeville finale courtesy of Haydn’s Orlando Paladino. The Rossini encore was a hoot!

William Christie is becoming as known for the gardens of his home in the Vendée (now listed as a Historic Monument!) as he is for his skills in cultivating young voices. On this evening’s evidence, long may his green fingers thrive.