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Les Talens Lyriques gives soprano a workout

The prestigious French early-music ensemble Les Talens Lyriques brought a delightful but formidably long program of Baroque instrumental music, cantatas, and courtly airs to the Jesuit Urban Center last night.

Founded by the charismatic harpsichordist Christophe Rousset in 1991, the group soon became an international phenomenon after it supplied the soundtrack music in the film "Farinelli, il Castrato" in 1994. It is one of the few period instrumental ensembles still able to embark on expensive and ambitious recordings of unusual large-scale repertory.

Last night's concert was a tour de force, and an aerobic vocal workout, for guest soprano Gaele Le Roi, who sang four contrasting cantatas (by Lully, Monteclair, Alessando Scarlatti, and Handel) and four elegant airs by Michel Lambert -- Les Talens Lyriques kept her as busy as the Boston Symphony kept Gidon Kremer this week, and she was still gamely singing an encore at 10:30 p.m.

Le Roi billowed onstage in a spectacular russet hoopskirt of period design that was so vast that one feared she might have had to buy an extra plane ticket to bring it along. The soprano boasts beauty of person, charm of manner, and a voice with a pure but colorful timbre. She's an expert musician, accurate in intonation, fluent in ornament, and reasonably vivid in declamation, although this was hard to judge because the acoustics of the Jesuit Urban Center did her diction no favors.

Le Roi's principal limitation is that her voice is not well-equalized. She found it difficult to project in her lower range, and each ascending note in the higher range automatically grew louder than the one before. This became so predictable that it limited her powers of expression.

It's too bad the program was not changed when the originally announced soprano Anna Maria Panzarella dropped out. Some of the music lay low in Le Roi's voice, and it seemed a pity to present a French soprano who sang nearly everything in Italian. She was most effective in the highest-lying cantata, Scarlatti's "Arianna," where her voice gleamed.

The band was eight expert string players led by Rousset at the harpsichord and by the concertmaster Stefano Montanari, flamboyant both in musical gifts and in personality. In the cantatas the orchestra expertly characterized peaceful zephyrs, raging fires, and the throes of death and tempests of passion. But the group shone most brightly in its elegant, virtuoso performances of instrumental suites by Leclair and Handel.

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