Is there a more passionate art form than opera? In what other mode is the uninhibited expression of feeling—tragic or comic—so central? More central than reason. Given the emotional liberation of great music, what can in a mere plot description appear to be absurd (a woman tossing the wrong baby into a fire; a “fallen woman” sacrificing her entire future and the happiness of her lover for the sake of her lover’s respectable sister; a man killing his best friend in a duel because he has flirted with his girlfriend; a nobleman secretly meeting his own wife in disguise—madness, murder, and deception) can become through music profound and moving, Revelation and Catharsis.
Pergolesi’s comic operas sound remarkably modern—which is to say, like Mozart. Recognizably human characters go through recognizable experiences, singing out their feelings very directly, which the music embodies in fluidly changing tempos and moods, stretching of harmony, changes of key and orchestral color. Much is accomplished through musically creative recitative—a half-spoken way of proceeding—as well as through song proper and duets (there are only two singers in each of these operas, though also some designated silent performers, to which this production added a few dancers). It is like Mozart, but sets the procedure for opera ever since, even Verdi’s with their heroic figures, Wagner’s with their gods and goddesses, Berg or Britten with their neurotics. Characters live, feel, and think—and sing—and the music moves quickly and supply and thinks, as it were, with them.
Once again the Boston Early Music Festival has shown us that elegance and energy are not mutually exclusive. As always in their performances, the superb orchestra is a leading player. At BEMF one never gets the sense that there is a divide between stage and pit. In fact, there is no pit. The players sit on the orchestra level, fully visible and physically expressive. The best exemplar of this process is leader Robert Mealy himself, who manages to seem at once gentle and passionate. I cannot say that Handel’s Almira was my favorite opera seen in the Mahaiwe, but it is a Handelian youthful adventure, and not yet quite full of sap. It is an age-old story, that of getting the right boy with the right girl. The business of the opera is a courtship process. The process must be interesting over three substantial acts for the show to work, and despite the excellent efforts of the cast, it wasn’t all the time. Through the many twists and turns, one did not sense through-going character definition. By way of comparison, one thinks of the great role of Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare, whose several arias pile one glory upon another and leave us with a complete, nearly Shakespearean, definition of her character. There were valiant attempts to keep Almira lively. Ulrike Hofbauer in the title role used her sizable and beautiful voice tellingly — especially the top of it — to carry us through the many ups and downs of her plight. Her sound was affecting and commanding by turns. She had a stillness which compelled you to stay with her. Colin Balzer, tenor, one of my favorite singers, has a voice of great sweetness, and his identification with the words he sings is complete. His role of Fernando, a kind of one-note Johnny, was filled out admirably even though he had to express the same sentiment repeatedly. Amanda Forsythe as Edilia used her quick-silver but warm voice to give vibrant life to the spitfire princess. I especially admired the sweetness of Tyler Duncan’s singing as Raymondo.
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.
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.
Even before Handel’s pastoral sinfonia was very far along, I found myself deeply immersed in the human activity I observed on the stage of Jordan Hall. Around the orchestra, who were dressed in unobtrusive modern black, some half dozen creatures of Queen Anne’s day, or, more precisely, early Hanoverian days, busied themselves about a capacious drawing-room, until five of them came together to sing the opening chorus, “Oh the pleasure of the plains,” evoking the landscape around Cannons. Actually they were looking into a pastoral landscape painting, its back to the audience. (At the end it was turned to reveal the composition.) While pictures were brought in and set on an easel for appreciation and perhaps purchase—the absence of a permanently hung gallery suggested that the house was not yet finished—two gentlemen at either end of the stage worked away at writing: one, Mr. Handel, was setting down notes, and the other—actually two, Mr. Gay and Mr. Pope—words. What was so absorbing about this was not so much the business itself, which is familiar enough even in early eighteenth century dress, but the mood.
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?