Review: Brandenburg’s French Baroque with Circa

This inspired program is something very special. It brings together the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, French soprano Claire Lefilliâtre, and seven members of Circa, a Brisbane-based circus company.

The program of French Baroque music is divided into two portions. The first—the shorter of the two—is concert-like, conducted by harpsichord player Paul Dyer, Artistic Director and co-founder of the Brandenburg. He radiates enthusiasm even with his back to the audience, giving off a contagious energy.

In this section we hear Rameau’s Ouverture to Naïs, Le Camus’ Laissez durer la nuit—sung by Claire Lefilliâtre—and then Rameau’s Suite from Les Indes Galantes. A striking change in mood marks the transition between the first two items, from the triumphal Ouverture to the melancholy longing of the Le Camus piece. These mood changes become a theme throughout and, because of their careful placement and handling, create a sense of liveliness and freshness.

The Circa performers join the musicians and soprano for the second portion. The orchestra has changed costume, the stage is rearranged, and brightly clad tumblers, aerialists and jugglers arrive like travelling players at a Baroque festival.

The musical score for this section was a pasticcio created by Paul Dyer and Yaron Lifschitz, Artistic Director of Circa. Based on musicological research, this pasticcio incorporates twelve fragments from composers such as Lully, Rameau and Boesset, arranged and sequenced into another lively, glorious set of contrasts, from jaunty to mournful to lovelorn to just outright playful.

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra's French Baroque with Circa. Photograph by Steven Godbee.
The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s French Baroque with Circa. Photograph by Steven Godbee.

The entire evening spotlights virtuosity. The tone from the period instruments is rich and beautiful, and the players have clearly embraced this somewhat unconventional performance experience. An accordion, played by Emily-Rose Sarkova, adds an appropriate fairground ambiance in some places, and raises the fun quotient even further.

Lefilliâtre’s voice is hauntingly beautiful. She sings alone and, at times, with three additional vocalists (Mark Nowicki, Richard Sanchez, and Philip Murray) the four harmonizing impeccably together.

Lefilliâtre has studied Baroque gesture and movement, and her physical performance here is restrained and elegant, displaying cultivated control and precision. The Circa performers, by contrast, are expansive, building towers of chairs, climbing on each others’ shoulders, or hurtling through the air and somersaulting, backwards and forwards. Yet, in their own way, they are as precise, controlled and expressive as the singers and musicians.

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra's French Baroque with Circa. Photograph by Steven Godbee.
The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s French Baroque with Circa. Photograph by Steven Godbee.

Furthermore, their performances integrate with the music, a tribute to the working partnership of Dyer and Lifschitz. An immediate visual link is established by the use of costume (designed for the pasticcio section by Libby McDonnell). The Circa men are splendid peacocks with floral decoration to their black outfits (matching florals are worn by Paul Dyer). The Circa women wear long dresses in strong plain colours, styled to reflect Lefilliâtre’s rich brown spangled gown. (The women’s skirts are discarded as things get very physical.)

It is a revelation to see the extent to which traditional circus acts like aerial silks and hoops can reflect the music’s changing moods, sometimes seeming to embody Lefilliâtre’s inner emotional states, sometimes appearing like entertainments in which she participates.

In fact, one of the great pleasures of this combination of music, song and circus is Lefilliâtre’s warm interaction with the performers. She proves herself to be an inspired choice as guest artist—not just because of her vocal virtuosity and her deep affinity with Baroque music, but also because her sense of fun mirrors that of Dyer, the musicians, and the Circa performers.

The overall experience is one of richness and generosity—of exceedingly high standards but also of sheer enjoyment.

Note: there are also two performances at the Melbourne Recital Hall, on Saturday, July 25 and Sunday, July 26.

Jeannette Delamoir

An ex-Queenslander and former academic, Jeannette has also managed a three-screen arthouse cinema in upstate New York, sold theatre tickets in London, and baked brownies at a cafe called Sweet Stuff.

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