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Letter from Thire: Sylvia L'Ecuyer discovers a musical and botanical paradise at Baroque opera legend William Christie's French home.

In the Vendee, 100 km south-east of Nantes, France lies an enchanted garden in the town of Thire. It is both vast and intimate, surprisingly wild but meticulously tended, and for the last two weeks of August, music arises from every thicket along its pathways. I had the privilege this past summer to visit this idyllic spot during the "Festival dans les Jardins de William Christie" and I am still under its spell.

This rural area on the west coast of France has survived tumultuous times. From the Hundred Years War of the late Middle Ages to the Vendee uprising during the French Revolution, the region has been a battlefield for much of its history. It has also inspired operas such as Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots, Massenet's Therese and Herold's Le pre aux clercs. Today, the echoes of battle have subsided in this pastoral paradise, and a new musical destination has emerged.

In 1971, the American-born harpsichordist, conductor and musicologist William Christie moved to France and eight years later, founded Les Arts Florissants. This vocal and instrumental ensemble, named after an opera by 17th-century composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier, stands emblematic of Christie's humanistic, artistic and musical ambitions.

The group quickly became a rich nursery of talents, its musicians maturing in their turn as conductors (Marc Minkowski, Christophe Rousset, Hugo Reyne, Herve Niquet) and leaders of baroque orchestras. Singers associated with 'Les Arts Flo' in the 1980s such as Guillemette Laurens, Agnes Mellon and Dominique Visse have gone on to establish their own vocal ensembles, while tenor alumnus Paul Agnew has recently become the main organization's associate music director.

Christie acquired his Thire property in 1985. It consisted of a logis, a term used in France during the Middle Ages to describe the stately home of a feudal lord, and later to refer to the manor house of a large farm estate. The logis was in disrepair, with only four hectares of land still attached. By acquiring adjoining parcels of land over the last 33 years, this musician-gardener, armed with patience, money and diplomatic skills, has created a wondrous domain. In rubber boots, with gardening tools in hand, Christie has not only invested financial resources in the project, but also a seemingly inexhaustible store of energy and personal flair.

He brings the same commitment to his restoration of the property's historic building and gardens as he has to the French Baroque operatic repertoire. Using the traditional construction techniques of the region, Christie took special care to re-establish the 17th-century atmosphere of the logis. Elaborately painted ceilings, antique tapestries, carpets, porcelains, and painted trompe-l'oeil medaillons (bearing Latin inscriptions such as 'Nulla dies sine musica--'Not a day without music') all give the impression the building has survived intact over the centuries. But on closer observation, the new landlord's personal signature is everywhere in evidence, especially in the gardens.

Apart from a few mature trees, the gardens themselves have been imagined and built by Christie himself, including stone walls, sculptures, fountains, ponds, and a dovecote for pigeons. I had the opportunity to visit the gardens with Joseph Disponzio, landscape architect for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, a scholar of garden history and a close friend of 'Bill.' He pointed out how French, Italian, Dutch and English influences are harmonized in this highly personal vision of a European 17th-century estate. Each plant has been carefully selected for its aesthetic, historical or practical features. European yews, tolerant of very severe pruning, were chosen for topiaries and for the spectacular Theatre de Verdure. Some rare species of fragant pelargoniums (which I naively admired as an unusual and delicate geranium) brighten the cloister. Pelargoniums were brought from South Africa to Europe in the 1630s and were popular with rare plant collectors of the day. As for the spectacular vegetable garden, its generous crop feeds the musicians and guests during the August festival.

When the Festival debuted in 2012, it was simply called "Dans les jardins de William Christie." For 8 days, the gates are opened at 3:30 p.m. for families living in Thire and nearby villages. The new lord of the manor, sporting a white jacket and straw hat as he wanders among his guests, has insisted that the admission price remain very affordable, the atmosphere family-friendly, and that music be omnipresent.

Very early one morning, I met Christie in the splendid music room of the Batiment (as the restored logis is now known). My visit to the gardens made me reflect on his holistic approach to art and life and I could not help asking why and when he decided to open such a treasure to the public. Without a moment of hesitation, he answered:

"Forty years ago, that is, before it even existed, this garden was to be shared. I did not want to buy a house with an already established garden. I might admire other people's but I needed to create mine, away from the crowds, from the concert halls, and it had to be hospitable to music, particularly the type of music which needs water, wind, and bird songs. And God knows Baroque music needs that...And I started imagining the music: a song by Michel Lambert accompanied by the lute at the little bridge on the river, or an opera performed on a floating stage on a large basin at night, just like it was done in the past... You seem surprised that I open this precious garden to the public, but you must remember that large gardens, since the classical period, have always been meeting places: a lover's tryst, a parade ground, a place for jubilation. Celebration of nature and beauty may be shared by many."

Equipped with a map of the property and a picnic blanket, relaxed audience members wander from the cloister to the orchard, and from the Theatre de Verdure to the Grand Parterre, enjoying intimate 'musical promenades.' Music stands, chairs and harpsichords are set up in the fields, in the boschetto under the parasol pines, and on the little island by the Chinese bridge for a series of30-minute performances. With 16 events per day, the musical offerings are almost overwhelming. I have fond memories of soprano, Sophie Daneman and tenor, Paul Agnew singing Handel's French cantata "Sans y penser" in the pine forest. The prodigious young violinist Theotime Langlois de Swarte together with theorbist Thomas Dunford played English Baroque ayres in a meadow clearing by the 'Mur des Cyclopes' (the Wall of the Cyclops). Workshops for children and adults were offered by Daneman and dancer Pierre-Francois Dolle (I so much enjoyed his gavotte class!).

At 6:00 p.m., everyone gathers on the Grand Parterre for a concert by a larger ensemble led by Christie. Afterwards, picnic baskets are brought out, and people dine until the 8:30 p.m. opera performance on the floating stage of the 'Miroir d'Eau,' the stunning reflecting pool, or they can chose to attend a candlelit concert in Thire's church.

On Aug. 31st, I opted for Robert Carsen's staging of The Beggar's Opera in a new adaptation by Ian Burton and Christie which premiered in Apr. 2018 at the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris, causing quite a stir. Bringing this production to Thire--with its cast of excellent singing actors like Beverley Klein, Kraig Thornber, Kate Patter and Olivia Brereton, known for their performances in musicals like Into the Woods and Rocky Horror Picture Show--made some patrons wince, and a few leave. However, those that remained were treated to the dazzling energy deployed on stage by musicians de Swarte, Dunford and Christie himself, and by the production's breathtaking street-inspired choreography.

The previous evening, I attended a more contemplative, yet uplifting, performance of two Bach cantatas (BWV 182 and BWV12) under Agnew at the village church. The 16 members of the vocal and instrumental ensemble included bass soloist Cyril Costanzo (a laureate of Christie's training program, Le Jardin des Voix) and musicians from the Juilliard School (violinist Robert Mealy, head of their historical music performance program, and the outstanding young oboist, Fiona Last). Every night, a final musical offering is given in the church--'Meditations a l'aube de la nuit'--a short program of sacred music curated and conducted by Agnew, with no applause and no printed program; simply a moment of calm and contemplation.

Thire is William Christie's home, even if he no longer owns it. All of the cultural and property assets of Les Arts Florissants are now public domain and were granted the status of 'Centre Culturel de Rencontre' by the French Government when Christie's Foundation Les Arts Florissants was created in 2017. The Foundation has acquired a few houses in the village, now Being converted into residences, studios and rehearsal facilities. In the future, this quartier des artistes will welcome Baroque enthusiasts of all kinds--from young musicians, musicologists and singers, to gardeners and landscape architects. All these artists (who Christie likes to describe as 'young plants') will be recruited from throughout Europe and auditioned by 'Arts Flo Junior,' the training program launched in 2008 in liaison with French conservatories. And along with a selection of students from Christie's historical music performance program at the Juilliard School, they will form a nucleus of specialists to carry his life's work into the future.

If we believe Ralph Waldo Emerson's tenet that a successful life may be based in so simple an act as creating "a garden patch" for others to enjoy, then William Christie has indeed succeeded by combining his two passions, music and gardening, for the benefit of us all.

Caption: Cloister concert at Festival dans les Jardins de William Christie

Caption: Candelight concert in the church at Thire

Caption: Concert on the terrasse with William Christie and musicians from the Juilliard School
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Author:L'Ecuyer, Sylvia
Publication:Opera Canada
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Mar 22, 2019
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