Bullish on Baroque Opera: A Maestro and His Acolytes

“Handel is closer to us than many composers who came along years later,” William Christie said as we were having coffee in the lobby of the Carlyle. He was in town with Les Arts Florissants, his celebrated, Paris-based troupe of musicians, who are dedicated to making music written more than 250 years ago sound as fresh as if it were composed yesterday. He had settled into his favorite subject-the glories of opera before Haydn and Mozart-when the ringing of a cell phone wafted our way. Without braking his flow of words or train of thought, Mr. Christie raised his voice and said, “Turn that thing off!” I glanced at the offender: It was a bulky man in a business suit who didn’t look like he was used to taking orders but meekly put the cell phone in his pocket, then hunched over his newspaper as if he wanted to disappear under the sofa. Meanwhile, Mr. Christie was saying, “Of course Handel’s music is wonderfully exciting and sophisticated, but it tugs at your heart strings, too.”

The Pied Piper of the ongoing revival of Baroque operas, William Christie is not a man to be disobeyed. If we are now familiar with countless rarities by Handel, as well as long-forgotten gems by Monteverdi, Purcell and the French masters Lully, Charpentier and Rameau, it’s largely because of Mr. Christie’s passion for music written between, roughly, 1600 and 1750, and his ability to sniff out buried musical gold as unerringly as a pig finds truffles. It would be unfair to credit him as the man behind the current fetish for period instruments, the vogue for updating Arcadian plots to the present day or the proliferation of countertenors. But in the burgeoning world of Baroque music, nobody can rival his discography of more than 70 recordings, many of which document an astonishing Christie-led run of operatic discoveries that began in 1987 with his landmark production of Lully’s Atys, which hadn’t been heard in 300 years.

When that production came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, it was a revelation. Although it was exquisitely staged in the white-powder-and-satin style appropriate to the court of Louis XIV, there was nothing mummified about it. Somehow, Mr. Christie and his colleagues let us experience a 17th-century delight on its own terms-but shorn of cobwebs, so that it became a 20th-century delight. As I think back on that remarkable event, as well as on all that Mr. Christie has done since, I can’t imagine anyone but an American pulling it off. In a reversal of Tocqueville’s experience, it took a clear-eyed man of the New World to discover the Old World of Baroque opera for what it was-and could be again.

A native of Buffalo and a graduate of Harvard and Yale, Mr. Christie has lived in France since 1971. A tall, elegant man, he has the manner of a sometimes peckish schoolmaster. While he was conducting a performance of a Rameau opera a few years ago in Brooklyn, he chided the audience for tittering at an absurd translation of the text on a screen above his head: “It’s not funny!” he said, without skipping a beat. But he is a man of the theater-and a considerable entertainer in his own way.

Mr. Christie was in New York to introduce seven young singers who are the most recent graduates of a project called Le Jardin des Voix, which he launched three years ago to nurture promising vocalists in the Baroque style. He told me that the singers had been chosen from 280 applicants on the basis of the beauty of their voices and the genuineness of their interest in the 17th- and 18th-century repertoire. I attended the second of two Jardin de Voix evenings at Alice Tully, and it may have been the most exhilarating graduation ceremony I’ve ever been to.

As is typical of Christie events, the program made equals of the famous and the obscure. Purcell, Handel, Charpentier, Rameau and 15-year-old Mozart rubbed elbows with Domenico Mazzocchi, Luigi Rossi, Michel Lambert, André Campra and two pranksters from the world of French comic opera in the second half of the 18th century: André-Modeste Grétry and François-André Danican Philidor. The selections ranged from the frolicsome to the furious and challenged the singers in every requisite of the Baroque style: dead-on intonation, rapid-fire agility, melancholic seamlessness, and the ability to both burn and melt in the same aria.

The graduates-three women and four men-had learned their lessons well. They were all winning in their expertise and ardor, but I was particularly struck by the intensity of Xavier Sabata, a Spanish countertenor who brought Handel’s unusually blunt “Minacciami’ (“Threaten Me”) to the brink of sorrowing masochism, and by the finely spun legato in Charpentier’s “Plainte de la Bergère” (“Plaint of the Shepherdess”) of Judith van Wanroij, a Dutch soprano who, the program informed us, chose the rigors of Baroque singing after taking a degree in law.

Mr. Christie has never treated his archaeological finds as precious artifacts. His young charges, wittily directed by Vincent Boussard and costumed with easygoing flair by Anne-Laure Fériot, were playful without being coy, and for scenic props they used the onstage musicians of Les Arts Florissants and even Mr. Christie, who was so brimming with good humor that he sometimes seemed to be conducting the audience, as well. This Baroque garden teemed with life.

And so, more fitfully, did the New York City Opera’s production of Handel’s Orlando, which-in Chas Rader-Sheiber’s rather skimpy production-is set in a painted, jungle-like garden out of Rousseau (or, as a friend put it, out of the wallpaper at the Beverly Hills Hotel). This expansive work, which had its premiere in London in 1733, enlarged Handel’s considerable musical and dramatic arsenal to include unconventional duets and trios, musical parody, rule-twisting arias and an extended mad scene for the knight-errant hero, who eventually comes to realize that it’s better to make love, not war.

Setting off a string of Baroque fireworks in the uncongenial New York State Theater is a lot harder than it is in Alice Tully Hall, and the sort of cultivated naturalness that’s so integral to the Christie charm was largely missing from the Orlando that I heard. For all the declarative artifice in much of Baroque vocal writing, the singer must have the capacity to make the human presence behind every melodic thrust fully felt.

At City Opera, the five-character cast was divided along gender lines between the haves and the have-nots. The two female singers, Amy Burton as the haughty princess Angelica and Jennifer Aylmer as the shepherdess Dorinda, delivered the melodies on time (though not always in tune), but with inconsistent expressiveness. Their body language told you what they were thinking about, but if you closed your eyes, what registered was mostly a profusion of notes. The three men, however, were uniformly superb. As the magician Zoroastro, the bass-baritone David Pittsinger adroitly balanced menace with sagaciousness. As the African prince Medoro, Matthew White, an Australian-born countertenor who was making his City Opera debut, displayed uncommon purity of tone and a true pathos that cannot be taught. (He can be heard in several splendid albums of Baroque singing on the Canadian Analekta label.)

Bejun Mehta sang the marathon title role, which Handel wrote for the superstar castrato Senesino, with beauty of sound and dramatic resourcefulness. To say that Orlando is beset by mood swings is putting it mildly. Mr. Mehta, in voice and deed, made him quiveringly headstrong and, in the end, painfully fragile. It was a performance that amply demonstrated Mr. Christie’s observation about how closely Handel, among the masters of the Baroque, remains one of us.