Les Arts Florissants/Christie - Il Sant' Alessio - Barbican, 24 October 2007
The nice people at France3 TV live-webcast Les Arts Florissants doing Landi's Il Sant'Alessio fully staged in Caen last week, but I wasn't efficient enough to catch it. So I ended up with semi-staged at the Barbican instead. But, hey, live. As you can see in the pic above, the musicians were set at the back of the stage, with the choir (augmented for this production by small French boys) at the sides, and the all-male soloists doing their thing in the middle.
Costuming was mostly restricted to co-ordinating the cast's t shirts, but the lucky countertenors who got to play female parts wore long shirts and shawls over their manly trousers. Combined with thoughtful characterisations and economical but telling movement, it was enough to draw us into the drama. And just as well, because at 3 hours+, the music's over-endowment of soundalike recitative threatened to tax patience.
The slim story of Sant'Alessio might seem scarcely enough to sustain any pre-Wagnerian opera -- living anonymously in poverty under the stairs of his noble father's house while his family mourn his apparent disappearance, his identity is finally revealed to them after his longed-for death. What makes it work, as much as the music, is the timelessly direct libretto of Giulio Rospigliosi, later to become Pope Clement IX. Alessio's internal doubts and conflicts, his merciless self-examination, are the meat of the work. They are rendered poignantly, and neatly segmented by the crisply comedic taunts of the family servants and the devil's suave temptations.
Max Emanuel Cencic
As Sant'Alessio, baby-faced Philippe Jaroussky suffered sweetly and lyrically, an enchanting paradigm of saintly virtue. He was nearly matched by the baldy duo of Max Emanuel Cencic as his wife and Xavier Sabata as his mother, all shawl-flicking and Shirley Bassey wrists, but both possessed of secure and resonant counter tenors and a feminine nuance that never descended into camp parody. The programme claimed that the work was originally performed by an all-male cast, so they got bonus authenticity points too.
Basses Alain Buet as Alessio's father and Luigi de Donato as the devil were not simply a welcome vocal contrast to the counter tenors who filled nearly all the other parts -- they brought depth and gravity.
The scattered 'comic' episodes may have induced a few winces (this is after all baroque opera not Matt Groening), but they were a blessed relief from all the agonised navel-gazing. Damien Guillon and Jose Lemos as the 'hilarious' servants strayed perilously close to the edge but just about managed to keep it funny.
Phillipe Jaroussky with 'mother' Xavier Sabata
The incredibly talented singers of Les Arts Florissants (every one is a potential soloist) managed both clear diction and effective characterisation whilst singing en masse, no mean feat. They were particularly effective as the devil's backing group, all sneers and spite.
Some of the most powerful moments came right near the end in the form of haunting polyphonic laments, musically quite different from what had preceded, and all the more effective for being sung unaccompanied.
The musicians' position right at the back of the stage wasn't ideal in any case. It was obviously a necessary concession to the staging, but the Barbican acoustic loses a lot of dynamic further back, and the modestly-sized ensemble did tend to sound as if they were sitting at the end of a corridor rather than filling the hall.
Amongst William Christie's three keyboards was a regal, used to sparing but splendid effect when the devil appeared, but otherwise musical textures were limited, making the quality of the singing even more critical. Generally, eight counter tenors comprise about seven more than I want to hear on any given evening, but the standards of this group really brought this baroque curiosity to life.
You can check out some of the televised performance from Caen in this vid: