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Lavishly produced and recorded live in the Chapelle Royale, lit by celebrated designer Bertrand Couderc to suggest a crepuscular byzantine location, the use of the building is impressive, with a candlelit opening procession and appropriate placement of performers in galleries. There’s a limit to how much Versailles’s baroque architectural fripperies can be disguised, however, and their influence prances into Raphaël Pichon’s interpretation with a pride in keeping with the lair of the Sun King. Risible text on the reverse of the case gushes the oft-repeated fake news that Monteverdi conceived this both as a defined ‘work’ (wrong) and for San Marco in Venice (also wrong), calling Monteverdi’s compositional innovations ‘the height of the baroque’ (most wrong). Pichon selects the usual subjects from Monteverdi’s anthology, opting for the largest possible scorings for his Vespers sequence and, to his credit, includes antiphons. These are measured to fit the tactus of each Psalm (interesting) but sung by soloists whose words are often unclear: with no texts in the booklet and the less-than-poetic subtitles missing altogether for the antiphons, this leaves the listener in the dark and also in no doubt that this interpretation is not concerned with liturgical probity. Moreover, with cavalier theatricality, the opening Versicle & Response ‘Deus in adiutorium’ is reprised at the end.

The increasingly devout Monteverdi of 1610 might well recoil at this egocentric, overblown, romantic treatment, but there’s good news: the many instrumentalists are superb, the scoring options imaginative, and there’s some technically wonderful singing from eight magnificent soloists plus compelling eruptions from a volcanic chorus. Pairs of tenors and basses compete, exuding enough testosterone to provoke a small war, hurling their viscera at the audience in a manner only enabled by a live event with no chance that they will be summoned back by a producer to do it all again. They might learn from Isobel Baillie’s maxim ‘never sing louder than lovely’. Tenor Zachary Wilder maintains elegance within the bounds of good taste, and Lucile Richardot, a mezzo of scarily imperious stage-presence and possessed of a kaleidoscope of vocal colour, prodigiously impresses by default – high-baroque opera might be her true métier.

Pichon stretches his tempi in all directions like elastic pizza dough, but the gluten loses its virtue by the time we reach a jaded Magnificat. People seem to enjoy being bludgeoned by grandiosity, however, and this luxurious production will surely sell like ‘les tartes chaudes’: after all, as Oscar Wilde put it, ‘Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess’.

REBECCA TAVENER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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