Saturday, July 9, 2016

With soprano Shannon Mercer to help carry the theme, Les Delices focuses on the 'Folly of Youth' for Indianapolis Early Music Festival

The Baroque — its meaning rooted in a word designating a distorted pearl — has more comfortable
Shannon Mercer sand music of Handel, Lully, and LeMaire.
connotations today than perhaps it should. Etymology is not a complete guide to its musical meaning, but the idea of something precious and shapely that also involves unique imperfections is helpful.

The great Baroque composers combined these aspects in their lives and music, yet not in any conscious sense of "being Baroque." Creative artists of all eras have "baroque" elements in their personalities:  J.S. Bach was feisty and prolific of both scores and scions; the sometimes bumptious Handel once fought a duel. But to find an outsize example of what might be called the Baroque personality, you need look no further than Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687).

Transported from his native Florence as a teen to France as an Italian tutor, he eventually underwent career-boosting transformation at the court of King Louis XIV. He singlehandedly set the art of French music on an influential course there. Jealous of his royally sanctioned prerogatives, he was litigious, vain, theatrical, and competitive. The biographical part of the entry under Lully's name in the New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians provides a complex tale of intrigue worthy of an overplotted novel.

Debra Nagy leads the seven-person Les Delices.
Visiting the Indianapolis Early Music Festival Friday night on the last weekend of its 50th anniversary season, the ensemble Les Delices  played a program dominated by Handel and Lully.

The mythological grounding of works illustrating the "Folly of Youth" title were Phaeton, the willful son of the Sun God Apollo, and Icarus, impulsive offspring of the inventor Daedalus, whose primitive wax-and-wings flying machine he test-piloted too near the sun.

Les Delices director Debra Nagy has here designed an admirably cohesive program, so self-contained that no encore was performed — a wise decision, despite the Indiana History Center audience's enthusiastic reception.

The Canadian soprano Shannon Mercer was on hand to put to the forefront treatments of the two mythological inspirations in a Lully opera and cantatas by Handel and the early-18th-century Frenchman Louis LeMaire.

Bookends of "Folly of Youth" were instrumental selections from Lully's "Phaeton" (1683), opening with a suite of three movements and closing the concert with the Chaconne, in which the variety of instrumental textures over changes atop the four-note motif made for a stately, colorful conclusion. The ensemble had Nagy joined on oboe by Priscilla Herreid, violinists Julie Andrijeski and Scott Metcalfe, with Josh Lee, viola da gamba; Michael Sponseller, harpsichord, and Simon Martyn-Ellis, theorbo and guitar.

Without oboes, the ensemble accompanied Mercer in three vocal excerpts from the opera, in which the jilted lover Theone processes a wide range of emotions in dealing with Phaeton's abandonment of her in favor of Libye, daughter of the king of Egypt. Mercer displayed considerable polish while not burying the music's emotions, as in the vows of revenge checked by second thoughts in "Temoin de ma constance," Theone's third-act showcase. Her trills were in place but never sounded mechanical. Indignation flashed forth in such lines as (translated): "The Infidel Phaeton waited until he had made me feel the power of his ardor to quench the flames."

In the Handel cantata "Tra le fiamme," the flames of love are a central metaphor. The young composer, who carried the hopefully respectful epithet "il Sassone" with him during his Italian sojourn, is clearly feeling his oats in this work. From the ensemble (with Lully's oboes replaced by recorders), we get fluttering moths singed by flame in the opening aria. The ensemble also contributed much to the characterization of a later aria, "Volti per l'aria," which displayed total fitness for its virtuoso demands from gambist Lee. The aria's lesson to those who would imitate Icarus is to "leave flying through the air to those who can" and advises man to pursue it only via his thoughts.

When it comes to insouciant throwing off any temptation to moralize, such admonitions were balanced by LeMaire's  cantatille "Hebe," focusing on advice to seize the moment and take full advantage of youth. Mercer sang elegantly yet seductively such lines as "Join, by the most charming banter, games and love."

Also on the program was a sonata by Francois Duval, spotlighting Les Delices violinist Andrijeski, and a wonderful, free-flowing sonata from the full enemble by Jean-Fery Rebel (after whom a previous Early Music Festival guest was named). The work is called "L'Apollon," a title forthrightly upholding the honor that the French Baroque, an artfully misshapen pearl of great price, frequently paid to the Sun King himself.