In the notes for her newest recording Ombre de mon amant, Anne Sofie von Otter refers to French music from the Baroque period as her 'new love affair'. It almost seems impossible that this is her first solo recording of arias by such composers as Rameau, Charpentier, and Lambert, since von Otter's voice and technique fit so naturally into the 'early music' paradigm.
In her singing at its best, we hear the naturalness and unadorned simplicity of emission that are hallmarks of the appropriate period performance practice. With her keen intellect and vivid personal touches, she transforms arias from Charpentier's Médée and Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie and Les Fêtes d'Hébé ou les Talens lyriques into miniature dramas – each offering a detailed narrative and shedding light on the heroines and conflicts in the operas from which they've been extracted. In a contrasting style, she also manages to breathe life into three lovely airs by Michel Lambert, both educating the listener about this seldom heard composer and making us want to hear more.
Both Charpentier (1643-1704) and the younger Rameau (1683-1764) fashioned several of their most important operas on the template for the genre 'tragédie lyrique' (also known as 'tragédie en musique'), established and popularized by Jean-Baptiste de Lully (1632–1687). However, recognizing that the art form needed to evolve, both composers experimented with daring harmonies and dissonances, and expanded the dramatic and emotional content of the recitatives. Both Médée and Hippolyte et Aricie adhere to the expected structural layout of a prologue, followed by five acts, but only Rameau – surprisingly – capitulates to tradition and includes the 'expected' happy ending. Charpentier's Médée cleaves close to the traditional Lullian form in its classical subject matter, metric poetry, and reliance on an abundance of text-driven declamatory recitative. But, his inclusion of arias in a more 'Italian' style, along with controversial (at the time) experimentation with dissonance set his music apart from the iconic Lully, and, to a degree, heightened the emotional content of the opera. In short: he made the show more exciting.
Rameau was perhaps even more innovative, adhering to the basic tenets of the genre, but composing boldly dissonant harmonies that didn't always go over well with his audience. In fact, Rameau's operas (Hippolyte et Aricie was his first) fractured the Parisian public into two camps: those partisan to the more conservative works of Lully and those enthusiastic for Rameau's developments within the genre. Both Charpentier and Rameau composed stage works which had greater intricacy and variety than contemporary Italian operas due to their episodic nature as well as their emphasis on choral, orchestral, and dance interludes in addition to solo vocal virtuosity.
Therefore, while operas from the Italian Baroque are quite simply chopped up into individual arias, it is much more challenging to find succinct and self-contained excerpts from French works of the period. The various selections included on this disc, while vividly performed, combine to give the listener a rather confusing impression. It is difficult to get a feel for the individual operas, and even more so, to glean an understanding of the unique attributes of the composers themselves. Von Otter is a highly committed artist – one who has made strong impressions in music from Monteverdi to Weill. In the present context, however, she goes rather overboard with her characterizations. Every selection is 'acted' with the voice: every word is interpreted and every vocal affect is well considered, but the interpretive overlay often verges on being excessive.
Consider, for example, her rendition of Lambert's charming 'Ma bergère est tendre et fidèle' in which her use of chest voice sounds more appropriate for a cabaret song than for this simple air. But then, in the very next track, she turns in a remarkably touching performance of the same composer's 'Ombre de mon amant'. And so it continues, as von Otter wavers between simple, unadorned vocalism one moment and arch, over-stylized singing the next. To a degree, the Quixotic nature of her characterization works for the mercurial Médée and tragic Phèdre. Still, after several selections, one starts to long for a simpler, freer approach in which the music is allowed to flow with little or no affectation. Nevertheless, there remains much to admire in both her technical assurance and her strong identification with the texts.
Von Otter's vivid performances would not be possible without the collaboration of conductor William Christie and his ensemble, Les Arts Florissants. With diaphanous orchestrations and virtuoso instrumental demands, music from the French Baroque requires the accompanying musicians to excel at both solo and ensemble playing. Additionally, tuning is of paramount importance, both among the instrumentalists and also in cooperation with the singer. Often, individual instruments mimic the voice (and vice versa) in unison or close harmony, and unity of style and purpose is critical. While von Otter plays an obvious leading role in all the voice-instrument interactions, she always participates as a 'team player', integrating her vocal contributions with the orchestral accompaniments comfortably and stylishly. The instrumentalists offer a superb sense of 'ensemble' while offering playing of notable individuality. While it would be impossible to comment on every detail of coloring and emphasis, it is easy to make the general statement that anyone wishing to explore French opera from this period will find a vivid, if somewhat hodgepodge, introduction with the selections on this disc.