René Jacobs and Handel applaud on the first day of the Baroque music festival

In Ambronay, in Ain, the Early and Baroque Music Festival, firmly rooted in the territory, is expected to be a family celebration. And when the program and its innovations are closely examined, its launch always arouses great enthusiasm and reserves the part of musical surprises and part of the legacy. Story of the first night.

In the abbey, the stones are colored this Friday, September 15, the opening night of the Baroque music festival. On the vast facades of the conventual buildings, a contemporary work in shades of blue, gray and sienna welcomes visitors, a unique monumental projection, made from a glass slide. Unlike modern video and LED lighting techniques, here the mirror light signed by the master glassmaker Julien Guiler, offers an artisanal rendering, a beautiful dialogue between the material of the planned work and the architecture of the stones.

Festival goers cross the grounds of the Abbaye d'Ambronay, whose facades are covered in the light of a work,

A kind of invitation to a new look at the site, in the tradition of the magic lantern, the work is part of the “monumental” theme given in this first week of the 43rd festival (with four, until October 9) . Monumental, in reference to the Heritage Days that are also held as a tradition here, and especially to the historical figures of the present Baroque music, René Jacobs and Les Arts Florissants lead the way.

But let’s go back a little to the night, while the sun is still shining in the abbey: it’s a small Spanish ensemble, Cantoria, that opens the concert festival at 6 pm in the Monteverdi room. The four young singers charmed us in 2020 right here with their Iberian Renaissance polyphonies offered in a “spatialized” method among the ancient stones of the abbey. Today their festival collaboration has produced a record of “Ensaladas” (these same Spanish pieces with a tasteful mix of styles and a happy tone) recorded by the prestigious Ambronay label.

But the repertoire they offered at the concert was completely different, the Madrigals of Monteverdi. Their choice fell on two laments from book 6 of the Madrigals, dating from 1614: this is the one that, without warning, will bring about a small revolution in the history of music, by highlighting the text, in speech, therefore, and the feeling expressed in the poem. And the feeling that prevails in both laments, the famous Arianna’s wishes and the sestinais the mourning and sorrow of love.

The Spanish ensemble Cantoria in concert on September 15, 2022 at the Ambronay Festival.  (BERTRAND PICHENE / AMBRONAY FESTIVAL)

“It’s not as happy as our Ensaladas”, comically warned tenor Jorge Losana, who directed the ensemble, in front of the audience. The program (which also includes a section composed of passages from other books of Monteverdi’s madrigals) combines a very modern score for the period and early, polyphonic music. Polyphony is no secret for Cantoria and the ensemble seduces the audience from the first lines of “Let me die” (“Let me die”), which literally carries the tragic tension of the story. The audience caught on, applauding loudly. The path You are sleeping, oh crudo cuore (excerpt from the 7th book) then above all, the lamentation The Sestina reveal on the other hand a more questionable phrasing and especially the excessive vocal power deployed for such reflection. Finally, recognizing the faithful among the audience, Cantoria ended their concert with a “hit” from their Spanish Renaissance repertoire, Gosh, Gosh, Goshwas greeted with a standing ovation from the audience.

The evening has just begun: the highlight is the 8:30 pm concert in the abbey church, by the Orchester baroque de Fribourg conducted by René Jacobs, one of the “popes” of the rediscovery of the Baroque movement and historic number of Pista d’Ambronay. In the program, two cantatas by Handel, one of his favorite composers. “Especially this Handel, from the Italian period, young and fiery”, the Belgian conductor told us right before the concert. “Pure vocal and writing virtuosity”he added.

And we are truly struck by the brilliance of the first song, Il delirio amoroso, brought to a rich orchestra and the strength of the German ensemble. The story: the young Chloris, angry at the death of his beloved Thyrsis, thinks that he sees her and wants to join her, in a kind of amorous reverie, close to delirium. Ukrainian soprano Kateryna Kasper hits her marks with ease and leads the audience well with her vocalizations and sustained notes. The second wind Per te lasciai la luce (For you I leave the light) gives cold. “Stop your uncertain step, or if you want to run away from me, at least tell me why”, continued the lone young woman. The ensuing dialogue with the cello is poignant, while in the third wind a bright soft flute provides the repartee.

Finally the bass baritone joins in Kateryna Kasper in the cantata Apollo and Daphne where he wonderfully interprets the arrogance of Apollo, sure of his charms. Believing himself to be invincible, and especially in love, he wants to conquer the beautiful nymph Daphne. “Please, soften this unrelenting severity”, Apollon requested in a beautiful duet. Daphne, unable to push him, disappeared by changing into a laurel tree. Left alone, Apollo lowered his voice: “If you can’t have me in my heart, Daphne, at least I’ll wear you on my forehead”. Yannick Debus interpreted, calm, his most beautiful air that closes the cantata, applauded by the Ambronay public.

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