Boston Early Music Festival’s presentation of two Marc-Antoine Charpentier chamber operas took us from the playful, elegant, high baroque world of the court of Louis XIV, into something more serious and grave, and then back out again. First we were given most of La Couronne de Fleurs, a Pastoral probably not meant for full staging, where Flore, goddess of spring—well sung, and acted with spirit, by soprano Mireille Asselin—summons up the season and then proposes to shepherds and shepherdesses a contest to praise Louis XIV’s military triumphs, the winner to receive the crown of flowers of the title. After the conventional tributes are made, the production turns to the short opera La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers, presenting it as a further entry in the poetic contest, though this is done a bit awkwardly, since the piece does not refer to Louis. The Orpheus opera seems not to have been finished by Charpentier, having only two acts instead of the usual three, and stopping with the beginning of Orpheus’s ascent from the Underworld with his lover Euridice rescued from death. We do not get the familiar incident of his prohibited looking back at her and thus permanent loss of her.
Surely one of the great joys of being a music-lover in the present day is our rediscovery of French Baroque opera—not to mention the Italian and German masterpieces with which the Boston Early Music Festival has regaled its audiences over three decades. The amazing resurrection of Les Arts Florissants’ legendary 1985 production of Lully’s Atys this year brought that home. (They are now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.) BEMF had produced Rameau’s Zoroastre in 1983. After that 18 years passed until they returned to French opera in their 2001 production of Lully’s Thésée, followed by Psyché in 2007. While these four represent the most public strain of opera in Paris, the grand spectacles produced either under royal patronage or at the Opéra, BEMF’s chamber opera series has provided a window on the smaller-scale, more private sort of performances cultivated by Marie de Lorraine, the Duchesse de Guise, with music by her house composer, Marc-Antoine Charpentier.
There is a lot of talk about long operas these days, in the light of the Boston Early Music Festival’s triumphant production of Steffani’s Niobe, Regina di Tebe, which, as cut by the directors, lasted about 3 hours 45 minutes; and now an important revival of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell is coming up, which also promises to be a long evening, potentially as long a five hours. Huntley Dent has just reviewed Henrik Ibsen’s early rarity, Emperor and Galilean, presented by the National Theatre, London, with the play’s two parts of four hours each reduced to a single evening of three and a half hours. It seems this goes against the modern grain, although blockbuster movies tend to be long and certain genres of popular novels very long. Yet Francesca Zambello, in her interview with Seth Lachterman for the Review, pointed out her concern to keep the Glimmerglass production of Carmen within temporal bounds that would be acceptable to a wide audience (in actuality 2 hours, 50 minutes, with intermissions, which is pretty well standard), and length is usually the first thing an operatic neophyte complains about.
A contemporary art dealer I know once exclaimed, as I was taking him around and old master drawings show I had organized, “this stuff has a lot of history. There’s a lot of history here…” as if history were a tangible quality that was somehow imparted to an object, whether by the artist, or by the physical touch of time, or by the many people who had successively owned it, or perhaps by something else…history! Every two years in June, history pours into the already deeply historical city of Boston in the form of historically-informed instrumentalists and singers, musicologists, historical instruments, historical instrument builders, historical editions, and manuscripts. Only a few of the historical folk—locals, most likely—knew that history was being made all around them, while some were immersed in the Roman de Fauvel and others were enraptured by Steffani’s Niobe, Regina di Tebe, as I was. As I sat down for the performance, I noticed a few more empty seat than I might have expected, and during the first intermission, I ventured out on Tremont Street for a few minutes.
The number, variety, and quality range of the BEMF musical events is so vast that it induces a kind of giddiness or vertigo over the course of the week that can be taken as either the frenzy of enthusiasm or the disorientation of overload. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Going to concerts is always a social event, and attending a series of them along with numbers of articulate, knowledgeable people (including the total stranger who might be wearing an “Earlier than Thou” T-shirt) with whom you can share information and compare responses is stimulating—at the very worst—at best highly enlightening.
Maybe the best thing about the early music movement is the way it has gotten main-stream artists, as they used to be called, to take music written before 1750 seriously. Handel’s operas are now staged across a range that extends from historical reconstruction to the most advanced stagings. Operas that used to be radically cut, rearranged, transposed, or just ignored, are now afforded textual validity and theatrical viability. On the performance side we now have the finest young singers and players involved.
The winter music season in Boston made a strong beginning with James Levine leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra in what turned out to be his last set of concerts with the orchestra for the year—and perhaps forever. Levine’s spring BSO concerts were cancelled for health reasons, and, of course he has resigned as Music Director. […] The notion is creeping up on one that Boston has become a remarkably good place for opera. —How about some Wagner?
Sunday, June 12
12 noon Music’s Quill (Timothy Neill Johnson, tenor; Erin Chenard, soprano; Timothy Burris, lute & theorbo; Elliott Cherry, violoncello). Due Voci: Italian and French duets for soprano and tenor. Program features two of George Frideric Handel’s more delightful arrangements, duets for soprano and tenor based on madrigals by Giovanni Carlo Maria Clari. Also included are dialogues by François Richard and Antoine Boësset, and solos by Robert Ballard and Pietro Paolo Melli. The College Club of Boston. $15/10 st, sr, EMA. 617-536-9510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.