Catholics will, one hopes, have spent the Easter Triduum on their knees with open hearts. But those who also managed open ears might have observed the way that festivals of sacred music during Holy Week are almost standard practice nowadays. And few are more impressive than the one that happens in the Chapel Royal at Versailles: a space that day-trippers barely glimpse as they shuffle past en route to the Hall of Mirrors, but a spectacular example of early 18th-century French extravagance that somehow manages to be both intimate and monumental.
Virtually abandoned as a place for liturgy, it’s found a new life as a centre for baroque performance. And especially the French baroque, a repertoire we Anglo-Saxons tend to find arcane although in France it pulls an audience and has its own world of star names – many of whom regularly play at Versailles and were out in force for last week’s Easter programme.
Prominent among them was Vincent Dumestre who leads a slightly maverick ensemble called Le Poème Harmonique and gave a decidedly maverick concert on Good Friday. It featured a stunning account of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater with the Belgian soprano Sophie Junker stopping hearts as one of the two female singers, but began and ended with raucous renditions of old Neapolitan street songs that tell the Crucifixion story – although you’d never think it because they sounded like something from a dockyard tavern. How the Neapolitans could be so cheerful in their penitence is hard to fathom, but they were. It’s disconcerting.
More conventionally, and a lot more decorously, Dumestre’s forces returned the following evening with some of Charpentier’s mysteriously beautiful Leçons de ténèbres: time-honoured Holy Week fare, complete with the ritual snuffing out of candles. And afterwards, for the most magical experience of the whole festival, we all filed up into the darkness of the Chapel’s colonnaded gallery for a late-night account of more Tenebrae settings by the 17th-century composer Michel Lambert.
If you’ve never heard of him, he was Lully’s father-in-law. And his Leçons were sung here with the barest string and keyboard accompaniment by baritone Marc Mauillon who had reconstructed this music himself from fragmented manuscripts and, with no precedents to follow, devised his own way of doing it: very freely, in a light voice edging toward rustic, nasal tone but with an over-riding tenderness. It finished close to midnight, Holy Saturday. The audience were encouraged to join in the joyful noise of Easter. And as Easter vigils go, the piece, the place, the total package took some beating.
Holy Week at Versailles has become an annual fixture on the early music circuit, and it’s beautifully done. Worth noting in your diary for next year.