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Two Baroque companies have risen to prominence over the past couple of seasons in Charlotte, different in size and scope but with obvious affinities. Over that span, the newer Bach Akademie Charlotte has performed two cantata series in Charlotte and nearby towns at various churches and is now preparing to stage its second annual Charlotte Bach Festival in June. Not so high-profile, L'Académie du Roi Soleil has settled into Charlotte within the past year after a concert history that has traversed the Carolinas, with transoceanic excursions to Oxford and Cambridge, England. While it's possible that the Bach Akademie may branch out into works by Handel, Telemann, and the French Baroque masters in seasons to come, L'Académie has already planted its Gallic flag. Soprano Margaret Carpenter Haigh and harpsichordist Nicolas Haigh, who co-founded Roi Soleil in 2013, have established themselves as Bach Akademie mainstays as well. In their return to Tate Hall and the CPCC campus, Roi Soleil continued to emphasize the Sun King in their program.
Or should I say "Programme?" For in their terminology, their typeface, and in their performances, L'Académie proved that they have a style of their own. Starting their presentation at 12:30 PM, however, wasn't a new wrinkle, for midday concerts are fairly routine at both the Oregon and Charlotte Bach Festivals. In fact, when L'Académie performed Couperin's Leçons de Ténèbres at Tate last March, that concert was also a midweek lunchtime event. Fewer Francophiles were likely to be as familiar with this year's lineup, which included Jean-Féry Rebel, Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, Louis-Nicolas Clérambault – and a devastating theme: "Treacherous Love, Passion and Vengeance in 18th Century France."
Giving Margaret Haigh the opportunity to make a solo entrance, Nicolas Haigh and Roi's two string musicians, violinist Cynthia Black and viola da gamba player Gail Anne Schroeder began the afternoon with Rebel's Violin Sonata No. 5. One of Louis XIV's "24 violons du Roi," Rebel came across as a blithe spirit in my first brush with the composer's work. Especially in the third Viste movement, Rebel offered Black ample opportunities to impress with her vitality and virtuosity. In the opening movement, where Viste was just the first of three tempo markings – with a middle Grave section providing contrast – Black displayed the richness of her tone almost immediately. Nor was there any inwardness or solemnity in the Sarabande that followed, where the trio's sound remained sweet instead of sad. After the exhilarating pace of the penultimate Viste, the final Gigue slowed down noticeably but remained joyously danceable.
When she emerged to perform the two cantatas on the bill, Margaret Haigh did not dwell on Jacquet de la Guerre's gender in introducing her Semelé. Unlike Handel's opera, which expands upon Ovid's 53 lines on Semele in The Metamorphoses – with a libretto by William Congreve! – Jacquet's cantata actually condensed Ovid's original, so Haigh and the program booklet were obliged to fill us in on the back story, wherein the Roman goddess Juno, jealous of her husband Jupiter's love for Semele, disguises herself as the human maiden's nursemaid and convinces her that she must get proof from Jupiter of his divinity. Here is where Jacquet began, sending her soprano onstage to tell us that Jupiter had rashly sworn to grant Semele anything she desired before she surprised him with her wish. The rules are the same as they were in the Old Testament: humans who view the face of god must die.
From then on, Haigh became Semelé, anticipating Jupiter's arrival and – amid mighty displays of lightning – chiding herself for her doubts. Haigh's best moments came when Semelé's triumph was at hand and in her ensuing immolation. Jacquet gave the instrumental accompaniment an emphatic pulse here that the musicians picked up on, and Haigh took it upon herself to dramatize Semelé's giddy vainglory, acquiring a strength in her "Quel triomphe, quelle Victoire" air we hadn't heard earlier. For both Haigh and Jacquet add on a sexy spice to Ovid's narrative, a hint the Semele aspires to become a goddess herself if Jupiter couples with her in the way he would with Juno. "Je vais joüir de sort des dieux!" she exults. She will enjoy the lot of the gods. Jacquet has her bragging that she knew how to please Jupiter, and Haigh reveled in repeating those hubristic vaunts. Our heroine's fall is pretty steep in the ensuing recitative, and Haigh was suitably vulnerable, surprised, and pathetic in describing her own destruction. Haigh then reverted to her previous role as Jacquet's narrator, drawing a moral that tenderness and warmth should be what we ask of love rather than blazing fire and glory. No wonder, then, that there's no mention that Semele's pregnancy incited Juno's jealousy or that Dionysus, god of wine and revelry, would be her son.
In Clérambault’s Médée, no such restraints applied. After an introductory recitative, Haigh could immerse herself in the wickedly vengeful queen and stay there. Yet Clérambault humanized his Medea more than we might expect if we’re familiar with the vengeance Euripides ascribed to her in his ancient Greek tragedy. Taking his cue from the Golden Fleece narrative of the Argonautica, the Frenchman ignored the more fiendish aspect of Euripides' storyline, when Medea kills Jason's – and her own – sons. Clérambault concentrates instead on Médée's ruminations before she kills Glauce, the Corinthian royal that her husband has abandoned her for. Where Euripides had Medea pausing to consider before slaying her own children, Clérambault had her pausing before murdering Jason, remembering how much she once loved him, and deciding to vent her rage on her rival.
Without needing to revert to her narrative role, without a particle of self-pity, and with the support of demons that Médée rabidly summons from hell, Haigh could be even more manic and powerful. Haigh seemed to revel in the give-and-take, the tender moments of fond memories giving way to fury, resolve, and exultation. Clérambault's score also gave the musicians greater latitude to vent their energies. Before Médée called upon the demon jealousy, "Cruelle fille des enfer' (Cruel daughter of hell), Nicolas Haigh pounded a march-like intro on the keyboard, so when Margaret Haigh sang out, casting her spell, it was like Médée was giving the demons their marching orders. There would be no neat moralizing here. After a recitative confirming that Médée's father, the sun god Helios, had favored her cause, Black's violin feverishly cued the "Volés, Démons, volés!" (Fly, demons, fly!) finale. Haigh sounded fully aware that she didn't need to save herself for anything afterwards, and this was one of those times when Tate Hall couldn't contain the power of her voice. Even when she was done venting and raging, the fury of Médée's vengeful wickedness continued in Black's violin, leaving us with the feeling that we had just witnessed the unleashing of an awesome elemental force.
This program repeats Sunday afternoon at Christ Church Episcopal in Charlotte. See our sidebar for details.