Anne Midgette reviews Opera Lafayette's 'Les Arts Florissants'

STEPPING LIVELY: Dancer Caroline Copeland and Nathalie Paulin in rehearsal for Marc-Antoine Charpentier's "Les Arts Florissants."
STEPPING LIVELY: Dancer Caroline Copeland and Nathalie Paulin in rehearsal for Marc-Antoine Charpentier's "Les Arts Florissants." (Louis Forget)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Baroque opera may be a field of scholarly interest, but that doesn't mean it's weighty in content. The pieces by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, written in the late 1600s, that Opera Lafayette offered on Monday night in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater were as sugary and ephemeral as a plate of meringues.

There were entr'actes written to enliven comedies by Molière. There was an opera-like work written as a diversion for an aristocratic salon -- a function you might even say it continued to fulfill by being performed for Monday's well-dressed audience. Its title, "Les Arts Florissants," is best-known as the name of an early-music group, rather than as gripping drama. It's an allegory in which the arts are redeemed by the peace brought about by King Louis XIV: in short, a frothy piece of propaganda or, more precisely, of brown-nosing.

Opera Lafayette offered a perfectly pleasant, slightly homemade performance, in the vein one has come to expect from this small but determined company. Founded 15 years ago with one specific focus -- opera of the 17th and 18th centuries -- it has continued to mine this vein doggedly, to the extent of issuing a new CD annually for the past five years of the little-known repertory it generally explores (its world-premiere recording of Rebel and Francoeur's "Zelindor, Roi des Sylphes," performed two seasons ago, has just come out). The Charpentier amounted to an aperitif to this anniversary season's main event, Gluck's "Armide" at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in February.

The cast represented a motley assortment in the varied sizes of its voices, from the firmer, deeper tones of the bass-baritone François Loup and the mezzo Monica Reinagel (the latter in the role of Architecture) to the flutelike but unsupported sounds of the soprano Ah Young Hong (as Music) or the diminutive tenor of Tony Boutte (as Painting, the role Charpentier sang in the premiere performance). William Sharp, the baritone, was vocally and visually elegant as Discord, and Nathalie Paulin restored order as Peace, assembling the characters around the solo dancer Caroline Copeland of the New York Baroque Dance Company (a frequent Opera Lafeyette collaborator), who, decked out in period robes and a fixed white mask, was a veritable apparition of the past.

Brown conducted with his wonted verve, leading a small ensemble in music that, if not earthshaking, at least didn't sound stale. The production values of the opening comedic bits could, however, have used pizazz: calling for Boutte, Loup and the callow but clearly audible tenor Karim Sulayman to interact in fluffy little slapstick dialogues, they were all very cute but overdone.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company