Music review: Les Talens Lyriques, Versailles Opéra Royale

Antoine Dauvergne was no neglected genius, but this production is a pleasant divertissement.


Hercule Mourant (Antoine Dauvergne)

Versailles Opéra Royal, Les Talens Lyriques, dir. Christophe Rousset

The particular splendour of Versailles is all about scale. It's a point made forcefully when you turn a corner into the Avenue de Paris and the splendid municipal buildings and hôtels particuliers all shrink, suddenly dwarfed by the elegantly sprawling bulk of the Palace of Versailles itself. In the musical history of Versailles and the French baroque, Antoine Dauvergne is more Petit Trianon than palace - a curiosity, a charming postscript to Lully, Charpentier and of course his own teacher Rameau. His opera Hercule Mourant, performed last weekend for the first time since its 18th century premiere, reveals Dauvergne as no neglected genius, but a distinctive voice nonetheless, and one that inevitably speaks with greater resonance in the baroque beauty of the Opéra Royal, Versailles.

The highlight of one of many music festivals that punctuate the Versailles calendar, this concert performance of Hercule Mourant by Christophe Rousset and the musicians of Les Talens Lyriques was the culmination of ten years of research and reconstruction by the musicologists of the Centre de Musique Baroque Versailles. Charged with promoting the forgotten works of this period, they curate an annual programme that fleshes out the silhouetted musical landscape of the baroque, exposing transitional or neglected figures such as Mondonville, Sacchini and Dauvergne.

Fresh from the critical success of their most recent baroque rehabilitation project (Lully's Bellérophon), Rousset and the Les Talens Lyriques appeared here in full force - doubled wind and brass responsible for characterising each of the opera's self-contained acts. Rousset's own continuo accompaniments were daringly spare, celebrating the simplicity in Dauvergne's writing that, rather unusually, eschews excess in favour of dramatic clarity. This play of muted textures was at its best in a brief dialogue between ingénue Iole (sweetly, if not always consistently sung by Julie Fuchs)and Dejanire (Veronique Gens) - the queen all percussive harpsichord chords, the young princess a haze of sustained flutes and strings.

A habitual collaborator of Rousset's, Gens led the cast as Hercules's embittered wife. Having extracted all possible emotion from generic vocal showpiece "La honte, La douleur", she was at last able to bring her dramatic subtlety to bear in the extended Act IV arioso, leaving us in calculated doubt as to the sincerity of her devotion to her husband. While both Andrew Foster-Williams's Hercules (who grew vocally into the challenge of the final act) and Emiliano Gonzalez-Toro's Hilus were stylish and assured, it was the supporting roles that offered the surprises.

Jennifer Borghi's Juno was a venomous delight, a worthy foil to Gens during her brief stage time, and Edwin Crossley-Mercer as Philoctete (whose first entrance is heralded by the fussiest, most deliciously pompous little cello solo) risked upstaging Foster-Williams with the meat of his tone. While with Rameau or Handel you can generally be certain where your big tunes are coming from, the bonus of the evening was a lightly virtuosic aria from the otherwise unimportant Grand-Pretre de Jupiter (Romain Champion) which satisfied any cravings for more conventional arias among the through-composed fluidity of the score.

The question Dauvergne's contemporaries and fellow composers asked of Hercule Mourant is still the opera's central issue: how can our hero Hercules sing his own death, and do so without debasing myth or betraying the drama? Dauvergne's answer is found most strikingly in the textural effects of the opera's final two acts. Employing muted bassoons (an innovation not heard again until the 19th century) together with horns and strings, Dauvergne sets up a unique sonority for the Act V opening, colouring Hercules' death-pangs and those at his wife's betrayal with shades quite different from either the flute-driven Act II or the marshal trumpets of Act III. Even when we reach the opera's quasi-symphonic orchestral postlude, a lively Chaconne that dispels the gloom with its dance rhythms, the bassoons remain prominent within the texture, a baleful reminder of struggles past.

Hercule Mourant is no more the equal of Bellérophon than Dauvergne himself is a real rival to Lully. Yet there is interest to be found here in the harmonic extremity and textural sensitivity of this work. Prioritising dramatic directness over self-reflexive technical flourishes, Dauvergne's music risks (and yes, occasionally succumbs to) banality, but also anticipates the Romantic model for opera that was born with Gluck. A charming curiosity, if not perhaps worth a full-scale staging, when Hercule Mourant comes gift-wrapped in the gilded interior of the Opéra Royal it still makes for a pleasant evening's divertissement.

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Why are Moby, Ed Sheeran and Laura Mvula putting on gigs in the living rooms of total strangers?

Billy Bragg, The National and Nothing But Thieves are all doing the same.

Depending on your personal taste, Ed Sheeran turning up at your house, guitar in hand, to sings some earnest tunes could be a dream come true or a living nightmare. But what about The National? Or Moby? Or Laura Mvula? These are just some of the artists that have agreed to put on shows today in people’s homes around the world – from Washington DC to Cape Town.

Today, over 1,000 artists will play “living room shows” in 60 countries as part of Give a Home, “the largest global festival ever held”. Organised by Sofar and Amnesty international , the concerts are being held to raise awareness of the refugee crisis, and as a guesture of solidarty with the 22 million refugees worldwide: fans were given the chance to donate to Amnesty when applying to win tickets.

British rock group Nothing But Thieves have always injected a level of political consciousness into their songs. Their second album, Broken Machines, was released earlier this month, charting at number two in the UK album chart. I spoke to guitarist Joe Langridge-Brown about Give A Home and their concert tonight in London.

Why did you agree to be a part of Give a Home?

It’s just something that we’re passionate about. We write songs about the refugee crisis, and this is what we talk about as people: in the band, on the bus. My girlfriend works at NGOs like Care and Amnesty, so it’s something that we’re passionate about. When we got this opportunity to play we jumped at the chance - anything we can do to even marginally help, we will. This is going all around the world, Ed Sheeran’s doing one in Washington, and The National are doing one. It’s amazing how many bands and artists have got involved.

Any you’re particular fans of?

Well, I mean, Conor [Mason, lead singer] really likes the National – but they just beat us to number one album!

Have you done a gig like this before?

Yeah, absolutely. We like playing these stripped back sessions, it makes the song come alive a bit more in a way, because they’re really raw, and some of them were written like that: just acoustic guitar and voice.

Do you think musicians and celebrities have a responsibility to engage with politics and issues like the refugee crisis?

We feel that way. I feel like we would be letting ourselves down and neglecting some sort of duty to use your platform for good and for things that you believe in. I get that it’s not for every artist, and I don’t think every artist should be pressured into doing it. But personally, for us, we’re writing an album and we want it to say something. It wouldn’t represent us if it didn’t.

What do you hope people who go to the gig will get from it?

Hopefully it will give people a sense of community, that’s what this whole thing is about. Its about raising awareness for the refugee crisis: I mean, it affects 22 million lives. It’s important to do something that just lets refugees know that they’re welcome and safe. Anything we can do to help in that way would be a positive thing.

What can people do to support refugees?

You might have to ask my girlfriend! Just talking about it in a way that is compassionate is important. I think one of the problems we have, especially at the moment in the age of Facebook, is that although social media has done a world of good in some areas, it also creates an “us v them” enviroment, and I think that’s really dangerous for humanity. I don’t think that way of thinking is positive at all. If this can do anything to bring a sense of community and togetherness, then that would be amazing.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.