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The Opera News Awards: William Christie
| conductor |

By Adam Wasserman

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Maestro Christie, who gives Baroque music an authentically contemporary sound, at the harpsichord
© Oscar Ortega
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© Denis Rouvre

WILLIAM CHRISTIE has lit the way for opera’s future by shining a brilliant light on its past. Period-instrument performances are, to some degree, efforts in historical reenactment. Yet one of the joys of experiencing a performance conducted by Christie is hearing music-making that seems to exist entirely in the present moment. The operas of Charpentier, Purcell, Handel and Rameau may be centuries old, but Christie and his superlative ensemble, Les Arts Florissants, perform these works with a polish and pulse that make them sound bracingly alive.

Christie’s impeccable sensitivity to the shape of a phrase gives his work a timeless sheen that’s unique in opera today: his baton incites prosody free from the influence of both overstuffed postwar playing and stale Baroque orthodoxy. Witness Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s beatific performance of “As with rosy steps the morn,” as conducted by Christie in a DVD documenting Glyndebourne’s legendary staging of Theodora; the performance is the sonic equivalent of staring deeply at a Byzantine image of the Virgin Mary and recognizing the face of one’s own mother. Christie’s gorgeous recording of violin sonatas with Hiro Kurosaki remains essential for musicians seeking to understand how to imbue a Handelian line with an emotional charge. On Les Arts Florissants’s recording of Die Zauberflöte, the appoggiaturas leading into the high-lying phrases of Natalie Dessay’s “Der Hölle Rache” bubble like giggles of evil laughter; it’s a subtle detail that changes our conception of the aria and of the character who sings it. When it comes to historical performance practice, Christie’s evil queen proves it’s possible to have your cake and eat it, too.

Drawn into the cultural crucible of the Vietnam War, Christie moved to Paris in 1970, and it’s telling that his earliest years abroad were spent performing contemporary repertoire along with the early music of Gesualdo and Monteverdi. His rediscovery of the forgotten sounds of the French Baroque and his founding of Les Arts Florissants in 1979 became acts of rebellion. “We were library rats researching this very underexplored field, and we clearly had nothing but disdain for an awful lot of what was going on,” Christie told The Guardian.

Christie’s scorn for the status quo is likely the source of his understanding that very old music can help make sense of a chaotic modern existence. As preserved on DVD, his performance of Handel’s Hercules, featuring Joyce DiDonato’s Dejanira, is as psychologically riveting as any present-day wartime drama on Netflix. And the 2004 run of Les Paladins that Christie conducted at the Théâtre du Châtelet featured brilliant video projections and breakdancing as outrageously technicolored as Rameau’s score. As conducted by Christie, Jonathan Kent’s more recent production of The Fairy Queen emerged as one of the most riotously funny shows to play in an opera house in recent memory; it also revealed Purcell to be one of the most cosmopolitan composers who ever lived. 

If Christie’s reputation rested only on the music that has been played under his baton, his legacy would be secure. But in addition to founding Les Arts Florissants, he has established the ensemble’s academy for young singers, Le Jardin des Voix, and taught for more than a decade at the Paris Conservatoire; he serves as an artist in residence at Juilliard’s Historical Performance division, and his tireless work has spawned numerous successive generations of singers and conducting protégées. Through careful tending, Christie has made his garden grow. How fortunate that he has left the gate open to let us visit.  —Adam Wasserman

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