BEMF eloquent CD of Charpentier’s “Les Plaisirs de Versailles” and “Les Arts Florissants” receives a Grammy Nomination

Nélida Nassar 11.28.2019

Boston Early Music Festival has reasons to rejoice. Its recording of Les Plaisirs de Versailles and Les Arts Florissants has received a 2020 Grammy nomination for Best Opera. This, its fourth Grammy award nomination is further confirmation of BEMF importance of the revival of French operas of the 17th century, and in particular of those of Marc-Antoine Charpentier.

The two works are based on King Louis XIV transformation of his father’s pastoral hunting lodge at Versailles into a lavish palace that became the seat of government and culture in France. This recording serves up a musical feast in the form of two chamber operas exalting the splendor and majesty of the palace and its gardens. The music’ s refined elegance and expressive drama is brought to life by the all-star BEMF Vocal and Chamber Ensembles.

In Les Plaisirs de Versailles, a divertissement featuring an argument between the rival pleasures of Music (soprano Teresa Wakin) and Conversation (mezzo-soprano Virginia Warnken), the latter an ignorant chatterbox who continually interrupts the self-important Music to offer “inopportune praise” (a regular enough Versailles occurence, one can well imagine). When the two argue, Comus (baritone Jesse Blumberg) is prevailed upon to arbitrate. He tries chocolate and wine, and even enlists the help of that other favorite Versailles pursuit, Pleasure and Gaming – but the two pleasures are eventually reconciled only in their shared admiration for ‘Le Grand Roi’.

Equally delightful are the airs of Les Arts Florissants, a short allegorical chamber opera. Celebrating the flourishing of the Arts under the beneficent and peaceful reign of Louis XIV. It is the personified Arts and a group of warriors becoming drawn into a dispute between the central characters of La Paix (Peace, soprano Margot Rood) and La Discorde (Discord, baritone Jesse Blumberg). After a brief struggle in which Discord and his Furies gain the upper hand, Peace appeals to Jupiter to intervene on her behalf. Discord and his followers are chased back into Hades by a hail of thunderbolts, and Peace holds sway once more along with La Musique (Music, soprano Teresa Wakim), La Peinture (Painting, tenor Aaron Sheehan), La Poésie (Poetry, soprano Molly Netter), and L’ Achitecture (Architecture, mezzo soprano Viginia Warken). The opera is scored for seven solo voices, five-part chorus, two flutes (or recorders), two treble viols and basso continuo.

The performances of both works are brilliantly led by Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, with the singers fully convincing. Aron Sheehan – evidently BEMF’s favorite tenor at the moment – is excellent in the roles of Pleasure in Les Plaisirs de Versailles, and Painting in Les Arts Florissants displaying plaintive lyricism, ardent entreaty and fierce indignation as the situation demands. Of the singers, I especially enjoyed Teresa Wakim as Music. Her timber is naturally expressive and she is capable of effortlessly soaring high notes. Hers is exactly the kind of voice to do justice to these humorous pieces. Mezzo-soprano Virginia Warnken as Conversation and Architecture delivers sheer beauty. Baritones Jesse Blumberg as Comus or Discord leavens his renditions with wit, while John Taylor Ward in Les Arts Florissants injects luxuriant melodies, and the violins beautifully convey the rhapsodic moments and sweetness. The sopranos Margaret Rood and Molly Netter brace the recording with exquisite collaboration and stylistic refinement. Tenor Jason McStoots’s singing is marked by precise intonation, supple French declamation and sheer beauty of sound. 

BEMF’s CD is splendidly realized, maintaining a perfect balance between the instruments and the solo voices. Recorded with utmost skill and sensitivity, its attention to detail and scale allows the listener to hear what the aristocracy of Louis XIV’s France would have enjoyed. An outstanding Charpentier’s CD.

The CD is co-produced by Boston Early Music Festival / Bremen Radio / cpo
Boston Early Music Festival Vocal & Chamber ensembles
Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, Musical Directors
Robert Mealy: Concertmaster
Executive Producer: Kathleen Fay / Renata Walter-Seevers / Burkhard Schmilgun

Les Plaisirs de Versailles
Teresa Wakim, soprano: La Musique
Virginia Warnken, mezzo-soprano: La Conversation
Jessye Blumberg, baritone: Comus
Jason McStoots, tenor: Le Jeu
Aaron Shehan, tenor: Un Plaisir

Les Arts Florissants
Teresa Wakim, soprano: La Musique
Jessye Blumberg, baritone: La Discorde
Margaret Rood, soprano: La Paix
Molly Netter, soprano: La Poésie
Aaron Shehan, tenor: La Peinture
Virginia Warnken, mezzo-soprano: L’Architecture
John Taylor Ward, baritone: Le Guerrier
Cover Image: Gustave Le Sueur, The Muses Melpomene, Erato and Polyhymnia,
Musée du Louvre, Paris, France