Beaune Festival International d’Opera Baroque et Romantique

3–25 July 2015

Long a Mecca for aficionados of Baroque opera, particularly those who object to the vulgarity of many of today’s stage productions, the Beaune Festival now has behind it more than three decades of presenting concert performances given by some of the finest singers and directors in the field. Traditionally one of the special features has been the open-air presentation of opera in the exquisite arcaded cour of the 15th century Hospices de Beaune. But change seems to be afoot. The 2015 season presented only two works that could be described as operas, Lully’s Armide and Purcell’s ‘semi-opera’ King Arthur, the remaining large-scale events consisting principally of oratorios or other sacred works given in the Basilique Notre-Dame.

Along with King Arthur (reviewed elsewhere), we attended two oratorio performances: Handel’s Jephtha with the Namur Chamber Choir and Accademia Bizantina under the direction of Ottavio Dantone (17 July), and the first modern performance of Porpora’s Il trionfo della Divina Giustizia (24 July), given under the direction of Thibault Noally.

In Britain we tend to take a proprietary view of Handel’s oratorios, so the chance of hearing the last – and arguably greatest – of them conducted by a leading Italian early music director was an intriguing prospect. I have to confess that Dantone has not always been a favourite conductor, some of his performances seeming to me too mannered and lightweight. Here such concerns were immediately swept away by Dantone’s fervour and the depth of string tone produced by Accademia Bizantina, whose playing was on the highest level throughout. Such impressions were enhanced by the commanding presence and authority of bass Christian Immler in Zebul’s opening recitative and aria ‘No more to Ammon’s god’ and further confirmed by the commitment, power and articulation of the excellent Namur choir. The love scenes between Hamor (alto Delphine Galou) and Iphis (soprano Katherine Watson), were done with an exquisite Italianate warmth and sensual affection that made their final parting a more central and poignant part of the denouement than usual. The duet ‘These labours past’ became a glorious poem to love. In her later affliction Watson was deeply affecting in her song of parting, ‘Farewell, ye limpid streams’, sung with the pellucid grace Watson brought to all Iphis’ music. The young Swedish tenor Martin Vanberg sang stylishly as Jephtha without ever attaining the tortured dramatic intensity of the finest interpreters of the role. His ‘Open thy marble jaws’ never quite conveyed the horror of the moment, although ‘Waft her, angels’ attained a gracious lyricism. His wife Storgè was Gaëlle Arquez, a Beaune protégée I’ve kept a close watch on since she first appeared as a soprano in 2011. Since then she has moved down to mezzo parts and indeed her Storgè included some impressive chest notes of true alto quality, ‘Let other creatures die?’ directed at her husband with venomous fury. Caroline Weynants’ Angel deserves special mention for a thoroughly appealing ‘Happy, Iphis’, while the final scene was in part redeemed from its usual sense of anti-climax by the lovingly expressed exchanges in the duet between Iphis and Hamor. It remains only to add that in a cast with only one native English speaker, diction and pronunciation were in the main unexceptionable.

Virtually the whole festival took place during the remarkable heat wave experienced by much of central and southern France during July. It made for uncomfortable conditions in the basilica for both performers and audience. In the case of the latter it also brought out numerous examples of that irritating species, the fan waver. At the Porpora I had the misfortune to sit behind a particularly exotic member of the breed, a lady who seemed quite oblivious that her unceasing activity might just have been a distraction to those around her. That aside, however, this was another unusually satisfying and rewarding evening. Il trionfo della Divina Giustizia is one of Nicolo Porpora’s earlier works, first given in April 1716 in San Luigi di Palazzo in Naples. Scored for strings and four solo singers, whose roles are those of the Virgin (Delphine Galou), the allegorical figure Giustizia Divina (mezzo Blandine Staskiewicz), Mary Magdelene (soprano Emmanuelle de Negri) and St John (Martin Vanberg), the oratorio is an examination of the emotions of the protagonists in the aftermath of the Crucifixion. The anonymous libretto inspired the 30-year-old Porpora to a score suffused with pain and anger, expressed in music of intense chromaticism and dissonance. Among many notable numbers I would note especially the madrigalian quartet set over a running bass that concludes Part 1, the wonderful flowing duet for the Virgin and Giustizia that opens Part 2, and, perhaps above all, ‘Occhi mesti’, the final aria for the Virgin, where upper strings senza basso attain a rapt, chromatic intensity over the mother’s near inexpressible grief. The role brought more supremely accomplished singing from Galou, but overall both singing and playing would have benefited from rather fewer broad brushstrokes and a more subtle sense of light and shade. Nonetheless, I’m more than happy to have made the acquaintance of yet another outstanding work by this Neapolitan master in such a good performance.

Brian Robins