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A Room with Two Views: Campra and Handel at the Boston Early Music Festival

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Caroline Copeland in Cmapras's Le Carnaval de Venise. Photo Kathy Wittman.

Caroline Copeland in Cmapras’s Le Carnaval de Venise. Photo Kathy Wittman.

 

André Campra, Le Carnaval de Venise (1699), libretto by Jean-François Regnard; performed at the Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theater, June 13, 2017.

Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, musical directors; Gilbert Blin, stage director; Robert Mealy, concertmaster; Melinda Sullivan, dance director; BEMF Orchestra, Dance Company, Young Artists Training Program

Georg Frederic Handel, La Resurrezione (1708), text by Carlo Capece; performed at Jordan Hall, June 14, 2017. BEMF Orchestra, Stephen Stubbs, conductor; Robert Mealy, concertmaster; Karina Gauvin, Teresa Wakim, Aaron Sheehan, Christian Immler, and Kelsey Lauritano, vocalists.

Two large-scale vocal works were presented at BEMF on successive nights (Wednesday and Thursday, June 14 and 15), one a work of music theater, merging opera and ballet; the other devotional but in the musical language of opera absent the staging. Composed within nine years of each other, they offer contrasting perspectives of Italian music and culture from the points of view of a French and a German composer. Both were clearly besotted with Italy, one responding to the carnival spirit of Venice with its light-hearted approach to life, love, and entertainment; and the other situated at the center of the sober religious and devotional culture of Rome. Experiencing these two works back-to-back and interpreted by many of the same performers provided a wonderfully condensed testament to the multidimensional attractions and influences that Italian opera radiated at the turn of the 18th century.

André Campra’s Carnaval de Venise was written in 1699, dedicated to the French heir-apparent, and successful enough to be restaged in 1711. It is in a mixed French-Italian genre of opéra-ballet and Italian serenata in marked contrast to the Lullian heroic operas like Thésée and Psyché that have been so powerfully staged in BEMF productions of the past. Here the characters are contemporary and rather ordinary people with no exemplary or heroic characteristics, perfect material for light-hearted entertainment without the burdensome task of glorifying the ruler or his surrogate (except for one brief moment in the Prologue).

The comic intent is immediately apparent as a stage manager berates his underlings to make haste and prepare for the immanent arrival of Minerva, who finds the premises ill-prepared and proceeds to complain. This leads to a first play-within-a-play, a commonplace story of mis-matched couples, jealousy, and mistaken identity rendered with a light touch that suggests that at this early date, Campra may have gotten a whiff of the nascent opera buffa. A play-within-a-play-within-a-play occupies the center of the third act, the scene of Orpheus in the underworld. The portrayal treats Orfeo’s desperation and tragic outcome found in other operatic narratives very lightly, with the characters portraying the on-stage audience kibitzing during the performance, in this production. The action unfolds too swiftly for fear and pity to set in. Orfeo asks that Euridice return to life and Plutone responds:

Troppo da te si prega
Ma se amor lo vuol,
Pluto nol nega.
You ask too much
But if Love wishes it,
Pluto will not deny it.

So much for the rules of Hell. And the entirety of scene 6 consists of this swiftly delivered dialogue:

Euridice. Deh! Per pieta mira Orfeo chi t’adora.
Orfeo looking at Euridice. Euridice, mio ben, ti vedo ancora!
Oh, for pity’s sake, look, Orfeo, at she who adores you!
Euridice, my love, I see you again!

End of story.

The curtain falls and (thanks to the magic of this production’s brilliant set-design and staging) we return to the canals of Venice to put a swift and happy ending to the framing narrative, which is punctuated by the elaborate entertainments of the carnival itself. In the pastiche-like spirit of the piece, the language switches between French and Italian, as does the musical style, especially of the vocal line: French syllabic declamation yields to Italian melismatic vocality at those points where the main story is interrupted by carnivalesque entertainment: in the fourth scene a troupe of “Bohemians, Armenians, and Slavs” provide street entertainment of songs and dances in the piazza, when the heroine Isabelle sings to herself (of course being overheard) on her balcony, and in the scene from Orfeo; in other words, within the conventions of operatic representation, French is speech, and Italian is song. With its inclusion of generous amounts of dance music, Campra is enjoying the best of both worlds, anticipating by several decades Couperin’s “goûts réunis.”

David Evans, Jesse Blumberg, and Ryaan Ahmed in Campra's Le Carnaval de Venise. Photo Kathy Wittman.

David Evans, Jesse Blumberg, and Ryaan Ahmed in Campra’s Le Carnaval de Venise. Photo Kathy Wittman.

Handel spent four happy years (1706-1710) in Italy, fêted by high society and pampered by patrons of the church’s aristocracy. He was one of the first composers to be treated as a celebrity rather than a servant. He also soaked up Italian idioms and materials like a sponge, having the opportunity to work with celebrated Italian masters. He participated in a keyboard competition with Domenico Scarlatti, and enjoyed having Arcangelo Corelli as his concertmaster for the performance of his oratorio La Resurrezione, composed for Easter Sunday, 1708. He even used a melody from Corelli’s fifth violin sonata for Mary Magdalene’s aria “Hò un non sò che nel cor,” presumably as an act of homage, since the composer was sitting right there playing it. (This tune would later be used as an English country dance entitled “Corelli’s Maggot.”) This was clearly a heady time for the twenty-three-year-old composer.

As an oratorio, La Resurrezione is close to its generic predecessors, particularly the works of Carissimi. These were religious works designed to aid in the worshipers in the contemplation of sacred subjects and moral precepts, as enhancements to prayer. Handel’s first contribution to this genre may have been influenced by the reigning generation of Italian composers—Stradella, Pasquini, and Alessandro Scarlatti—whose oratorios were performed in private quarters and strove for operatic intensity. Handel eschews the use of chorus (presumably the only mention of it is in the final section which works perfectly as sung by the five solo voices) and the straight-forward, simple action proceeds slowly so that the characters (an Angel, Mary Magdelene, Mary Cleophas, St. John, and Lucifer) can dwell on the feelings of the moment. With great skill, the music builds not through plot turns or romantic complication, but by exploring the meaning of the event from many different vantage points, slowly accumulating great emotional intensity. The end result is intensely contemplative, imbued with a genuine religious passion that may have only resurfaced in a completely different way decades later in Messiah.

The main figure is Maddelena, who channels the orthodox responses to Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection in a series of highly sympathetic and fervent arias, beautifully rendered by Theresa Wakim. The other “characters” are the Angel sung with luminous intensity by Karina Gauvin; her opponent Lucifero, rendered almost human in his misguided hopes and ultimate disappointment thanks both to Handel’s characterization and the interpretation of the smooth-voiced Christian Immler; the interesting figure of St. John the Evangelist, who seems to know all that will happen ahead of time and who offers a calming influence, mellifluously delivered by Aaron Sheehan, and the relatively minor figure of Cleofe, sung ably by Kelsey Lauritano.  The Festival Orchestra accompanied with its usual stylistic efficiency, with concert master Robert Mealy in elevated seating (playing the part designed for Corelli) and sharing the directorial duties with Steven Stubbs, who stood at one of two harpsichords, barely playing it (Michael Sponseller, harpsichord, and Avi Stein did most of the keyboard continuo work); he occasionally strapped on a theorbo, thereby beefing up the strummed continuo otherwise provided by Paul O’Dette and Charles Weaver. The individual instrumental solos were handled superbly by Mealy, Gonzalo Ruíz and Kathryn Montoya doubling on oboes and recorders, Phoebe Carrai on cello, and Philippe Pierlot on bass viol. Otherwise, the strummed continuo dominated the orchestra in a way that, for BEMF, can start to feel generic. This may also have had something to do with fatigue, since the schedule of this ensemble is grueling, with three opera performances surrounding the Handel.

Scene from Le Carnaval de Venise. Photo Kathy Wittman.

Scene from Le Carnaval de Venise. Photo Kathy Wittman.

The production of Le Carnaval de Venise aroused some controversy among those with whom I have discussed it. As already indicated, it was played for humor and elegance, rather than for serious drama. One might imagine a more sober and contained production, but I doubt that the absence of fun would have been compensated by deeper satisfactions. The quality of the music inhered in providing opportunities for both characterful and beautiful singing, but left few traces of its own in the memory, with the exception of a nocturnal serenade scene and Isabelle’s aria when she believes mistakenly that her lover has been killed. This is the same character who earlier declared “En amour bien souvent, un peu d’incertitude, Flatte plus que la verité,” hardly a sentiment that makes for true drama. The work is really a carnivalesque pastiche, incorporating picturesque episodes unrelated to plot along with an Italian opera and a concluding masked ball, which are both hallmarks of Venice.

Another criticism of this production might be its lack of authenticity in staging, choreography, etc. There undoubtedly were many details that could be quibbled about, assuming one knew what the more authentic option would be. The magic serenade scene clearly drew its design inspiration, anachronistically, from this painting of Henri Rousseau.

Henri Rousseau, Carnival Evening, 1886, oil on canvas, 117.3 x 89.5 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Henri Rousseau, Carnival Evening, 1886, oil on canvas, 117.3 x 89.5 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

It beautifully enhanced one of those rare magic moments in the music, the serenade on the bridge.

Here another question must be raised about the relative merits of “authenticity” and “entertainment” for a modern audience? Opera productions are notoriously creative, and Gilbert Blin, who has successfully employed historical practices in staging baroque operas for BEMF, here showed a creative spirit inclined toward the looseness of commedia dell’arte, a decision extending to the use of costumes, masques, and improvisatory by-play which the performers took to with great relish. The result was continuously inventive and entertaining (although occasionally distracting—it was sometimes not possible to take in all the side-bits that were going on while staying focused on the singers), as were the performances. The large cast featured the always splendid Amanda Forsythe as Isabelle, with other singers taking on multiple roles in the different dramatic components. Again, the BEMF orchestra was dominated by the massive strumming section, but otherwise kept things moving along at a lively and stylish pace. And the dancing, which incorporated elements of French and Italian styles with touches of modern ballet, was light-hearted in keeping with the spirit of the production, thanks to choreographer Caroline Copeland; special notice goes to dancers Alexis Silver and Carlos Fittante, as well as to costume designer Anna Watkins, who had to provide multiple outfits for each member of the very large cast; and most of all to the sets that were designed by Gilbert Blin to instantaneously transform the space from an almost empty stage to an open-air canal in Venice to an operatic stage-set of the underworld complete with on-stage audience, and back to the canal. The essence of comedy is rapid change, realized in this production in every aspect.

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