Director Draws New Fans to Baroque Opera

IT'S expected now that when William Christie's French-based early instruments ensemble, Les Arts Florissants, visits New York the audience will not be the usual, slightly stiff New York opera crowd.

And so it was again last month when Les Arts appeared at New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music with a new, fully staged French Baroque opera; the crowd was young, fashionably dressed, and seemingly abuzz with enthusiasm about what is often considered an impenetrable and archaic art form. It was an audience of trendy connoisseurs.

More than any other conductor today, the American-born Mr. Christie has learned how to breathe life and fire into French Baroque opera. In the 15 years since he founded Les Arts, Christie has created an ensemble that speaks this stately yet fragile musical language with expert fluency; and, with a creative theater and dance team, he has constructed visually stunning, dramatically compelling productions of major works from the late 17th century.

The first of these productions, a staging of Jean Baptiste Lully's ``Atys,'' which was seen in the United States in 1989 and 1992, established a new standard for French opera of this period; it proved that these formal reflections of court life could indeed communicate to an audience light-years distant from the quiet, ritualized, and supremely oversensitive world of Versailles.

The recent ``Me,'' by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, surpassed its predecessor and revealed even more about the dramatic and musical passion lurking beneath the music's deceptively dry surface, a surface so alien that this masterpiece lay neglected for almost three centuries.

``Me'' is a quintessentially French elaboration of the much more compact and brutal events in Euripides's ``Medea'' (which is, by coincidence, playing concurrently on Broadway).

The opera is in five acts, with a political and allegorical prologue sung in praise of Louis XIV.

It is typical of French opera of the period in its frequent use of formal dances and lengthy ``divertissements,'' choreographed miniature scenes within a scene that both interrupt the plot and heighten the dramatic tension.

THE music of ``Me'' uses a limited repertoire of conventions with astonishing ingenuity. Throughout the work, the singers perform in tandem with a ``continuo'' group - harpsichord, theorbo, and a few lower strings. An elaborate commentary is improvised with accompaniment based on the singers' music and a single bass line that serves as the ``ground'' of the entire score. Christie's continuo ensemble - the nerve center of every baroque-instruments group - may well be the world's most fluid.

The success of Christie and his team derives from an ability to balance past with present. Musically the group strives for authenticity to the original, but it is not a slavish approach; the gray areas of scholarship are taken as an opportunity to explore imaginative solutions. Dramatically they mix elements of modern staging and design with a whimsical suggestion of how the original might have looked.

For this production, the costumes were of the period - not what the original actors might have worn, but rather what the audience might have worn at court. Thus it had a historical ambience, but also suggested that we interpret the opera as a reflection of the aristocratic conventions and power structures of late 17th-century France.

For devotees of the art form, it is as surprising as it is gratifying to discover that operas such as ``Me'' are appealing to a wider and younger audience. Surprising because a work like ``Me'' seems to represent so fully two long-held American prejudices - against opera and against French culture. ``Me'' is of Wagnerian proportions (over four hours), filled with highly rhetorical discourses on love, honor, and vengeance, and devoid of any melodic material.

But both ``Atys'' and ``Me'' have overcome such drawbacks. Why? Perhaps because they are so different from the stage and screen language of today that they offer total escapism.

It may also be a reaction against the frantic pace at which so much popular (and classical) music moves today. The resolution of a single dissonant note is a major event in the music of Charpentier and Lully. The scenes do not succeed one another in rapid, crosscutting Hollywood style; rather, they proceed at a profound pace, squeezing from every interaction a superabundance of meaningful gestures.

The characters in ``Me'' are both introspective and passionate, they both examine and express emotion. They lie to themselves and to each other, and then they analyze the fabric of conceit.

It was, to be sure, a decadent, privileged, and exploitative society that had time for all this delicious navel-gazing, but it was a society from which ours might learn a great deal about the labyrinth of the human condition.

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