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Les Musiciens, von Otter dazzle

By Ellen Pfeifer, Globe Correspondent, 4/8/2002

You could tell something really special was happening at Jordan Hall yesterday. The tipoff? The large number of singers and conductors in the audience for the performance by Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble with the conductor, Marc Minkowski, and the Swedish mezzo-soprano, Anne Sofie von Otter.

Founded by Minkowski in 1984, Les Musiciens du Louvre is one of the world's leading period-instrument ensembles. Having merged with the Orchestre de Chambre de Grenoble in 1996, it is now headquartered in Grenoble, and performs all over France and Europe. It also tours worldwide, and records extensively. This was the orchestra's debut with the FleetBoston Celebrity Series.

The musical fission produced by Minkowski, a firecracker on the podium, von Otter, with her theatrical combustion, and the orchestra, with its youthful high spirits, has resulted in a remarkable partnership. Together, they have made several splendid CDs and they reprised some of the recorded highlights yesterday.

Von Otter eschewed all conventional trappings of glamour in her performance of three Handel arias and the Bach cantata ''Ich habe genug.'' Black pants, flat black shoes, and a black shirt served as the basic wardrobe elements, and were supplemented only by a black frock coat for the Bach and a red velvet one for Handel's ''Hercules'' and ''Ariodante.'' But what she omitted in jewels and other adornments she lavished on vocal color and emotion.

As Hercules's wife, Dejanira, who mistakenly thinks she has been betrayed, von Otter spitefully taunted and teased her warrior husband for succumbing to the blandishments of ''Venus and her whining boy.'' (The boy is Cupid). Bobbing on her toes in imitation of Handel's springy rhythms, she sassed her way through the sardonic coloratura, scooping and smearing the pitches on the words ''whining boy.'' It was a tour de force.

Then she switched gears. Assuming the persona of Ariodante, who also believes himself the victim of a spouse's infidelity, she broke everyone's heart in the great ''Scherza infida in grembo al drudo'' (''Sport, faithless one, in your lover's embrace.'')

In this classic tripartite da capo aria, she moved from shock and fury in the first statement, to vengefulness in the second, to despair in the return to the opening material. In this last section, her character seemed to shut down, the voice thinning to a golden thread of anguish and the force of life seeming to ebb.

Minkowski and the orchestra were with her all the way, and in that last section the instruments played with the softest possible but still audible pianissimo.

Von Otter is not equally persuasive in everything she sings. The brilliantly florid ''Dopo notte, atra e funesta'' that is the dramatic turning point in ''Ariodante'' was stunning in interpretive effect but less impressive as pure vocalism. The mezzo tends to lose tone quality in such rapid music; this is a shame because she knows the expressive uses of coloratura. In the Bach cantata, it was often hard to hear her over the sound of the orchestra.

Playing alone, Les Musiciens offered a dazzling account of the Handel Concerto Grosso Op. 6, No. 1. Minkowski makes the most of every variation in articulation, texture, dynamic, and tempo. Even in an orchestral suite of dances from Rameau's ''Les Boreades'' - which could be excruciatingly tedious in other hands - he captivated listeners.

This story ran on page B6 of the Boston Globe on 4/8/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.