Handel's Messiah in Paris: accentus & Insula triumph

Handel's Messiah in Paris: accentus & Insula triumph
Laurnce Equilbey, photo © Jana Jocif

Handel Messiah (abridged).  Marie Lys (soprano); Paul-Antoine Bénos-Djian (counter-tenor); Stuart Jackson (tenor); Alex Rosen (bass); accentus; Insula Orchestra / Laurence Equillbey (conductor). Auditorium Patrick Devedjian, La Seine Musicale, Paris, 05.12.2023

This somewhat abridged Messiah - one interval, 2 hours 20 minutes approximately from an 8pm start  - offered a refreshing take on a work that has long been a seasonal favourite in the United Kingdom. With the sure, clear lines of zccentus (most recently heard in Sky Burial at the Barbican: link), supreme clarity from the instrumental ensemble and an overall conception that brought this work together as rarely before, this was a terrific evening. 

The streamlined version did mean some rather large cuts from the second part (plus some omissions from the flanking parts also), but the result was eminently satisfying musically.  

Sadly, the scheduled soprano soloist, Sandine Piau, cancelled at the eleventh hour – it was good luck, though that Marie Lys was available at such short notice. As recently as this Summer I reported on Lys with Christophe Rousset and his Les Talens Lyriques in the superb Ave Maris Stella programme at Baroque Itinéraire. She is an up-and-coming singer who has already made her mark internationally, including a Clorinda Rossini Cenerentola in Switzerland (reviewed by Antoine Lévy-Leboyer here). She sings with a freshness and purity that is remarkable. Many, myself among them, might have come for Piau, but there was no retrospective musical disappointment whatsoever. Lys was like a ray of light in the duet towards the end of Part One (‘Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened …'). Her ‘II know that my Redeemer liveth’ (from the third and final part) was gloriously pure and heartfelt. Insula’s phrasing in this last was full of grace – the perfect partnership.  

Counter-tenor Paul-Antoine Bénos-Djian has a unique, dark, fruity sound but there seems to be something of a break in his voice that makes the extreme lowest end of the counter-tenor register timbrally disjunct from the rest. He took ‘But who may abide’ in this performance (it can be sung also by soprano or bass), but he seemed less refined in delivery than his soloistic companions there and overall. 

Tenor Stuart Jackson took an almost operatic view of his solos, full of drama and, indeed, gesture. Alex Rosen is a fine, clear bass of excellent pitching and attack, just lacking in the last iota of character that, say, Ashley Riches (a stalwart of this part); ‘Why do the nations so furiously rage together’ 

accentus is a choir of remarkable clarity, their sound infinitely malleable. How bright they sounded while delivering  ‘For unto us a child is born’ with pinpoint accuracy after the palpable shadows of Rosen’s ‘The people that walked in darkness’. At the other end of the scale, their ‘Since by man came death’ was a moment of dark stillness (with little accent on the word ‘Death’) - a plateau of sound that contrasted maximally to the Corinthians-derived text ‘even so in Christ shall all be made alive’.  

But for all the excellence of the individual soloists and the minutiae of detail and balance, the single most notable element of this performance was Laurence Equilbey’s conception. There was a markedly different emotional territory for each part, with the second cast in particularly dark hues. The final chorus, ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ carried much pomp, but it was the fugal ‘Amen’ that crowned the performance perfectly, shorn of any unnecessary heaviness, glowing brightly.  

A malleable continuo group helped in that shading, with particularly intelligent use made of the lute (André Henrich). And it would be impossible to conclude without a mention of the trumpet solo, performed by Serge Tizac, who offered a more nuanced view of the part than that offered, in my experience, the UK’s omnipresent David Blackadder.  

This was an outstanding evening. A pity most of the row in front of me took it upon themselves to record vast chunks of the first part despite a clear announcement to the contrary; all credit to the usher who, upon prompting, sorted this out firmly and effectively. And thank goodness bottoms remained resolutely glued to seats during the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus – the outdated, interruptive practice of standing in UK performances does more harm than good.  

Insula triumphs again, then. The New Year brings a return of Yoann Bourgeois’ imagining of the Mozart Requiem (see my 2019 review) and – the one that really piques interest - Schubert’s Fourth Symphony (one of the lesser-performance of that composer's symphonies) and Emilie Meyer’s Symphony No. 1. A fair amount of Meyer’s music has been recorded by the cpo label, including a disc of her first two symphonies, and the recordings indicate plenty to look forward to. Insula’s performances will complement those of the music of Louise Farrnec, naturally,