Thursday, December 1, 2011

To hell and back with Boston Early Music Festival

Douglas Williams, Mireille Asselin and ensemble in Hades.

What is period musical performance for?

For its enthusiasts, the answer is simply the beauty of the music itself, which is most authentically conveyed in the language of the instruments for which it was written.  And this argument has proven so convincing over the years that organizations like the BSO - which basically plays on nineteenth-century instruments - has slowly had to shed from its schedule much of the early "classical" repertoire (and some argue should really shed Mozart and Haydn, too).

But when it comes to period opera, things get a bit trickier, and the early music movement must face the issues with which theatrical artists have long since grappled, which perhaps could be summed up as, "How do we stay true to classic values while remaining contemporary, too?"  Given that the major aim of many in the early music movement is to replicate as closely as possible all the original performance conditions of the works in question (whole concert halls are being designed after period models, in fact, and built of "authentic" materials), the attempt to provide contemporary meaning in what amounts to a costume drama can seem almost paradoxical.

But over recent years the brilliant Gilbert Blin, house director at the Boston Early Music Festival, has reliably devised smart, subtle subversions of this apparent contradiction.  Blin isn't really all that interested in period tableaux vivant for its own sake - he's intrigued instead by what it actually tells us about its period, as well as what it tells us about ourselves.  Thus, particularly in his chamber operas, he sets his productions in precise historical moments (sometimes a specific weekend) in which actual historical figures like Alexander Pope or Molière may figure in the action, or even take the stage.  What Blin attempts to conjure is a kind of meta-historical performance, in which something like the period itself appears before us, draped in its own theatrical trappings.

Admittedly, Blin's aim can sometimes wobble (last year's Dido was a bit of a mixed bag), but his ideas are always suggestive, and at any rate he was firing on all cylinders this year, with a double bill of Marc-Antoine Charpentier's La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers and La Couronne de Fleurs that transfixed audiences at BEMF last weekend.  The musical performance was always exemplary, Blin's elegantly simple staging was often haunting, and the historical metaphors he teased from the material were pleasingly resonant.  My only regret was that the production had only two performances; like his great Acis and Galatea, this is another Blin masterpiece that deserves to tour.

Aaron Sheehan as Orpheus
Blin's first brainstorm was an inspired gambit to get around the fact that, to put it bluntly, we've lost the last act of Charpentier's Orphée; the extant manuscript simply ends with Orpheus and Eurydice groping their way together out of Hades - before the final tragedy that dashes their romantic dreams a second time. To explain this gap, Blin has nestled the larger opera within a kind of operatic short subject - La Couronne de Fleurs, Charpentier's prologue to Molière's Le Malade Imaginaire, a satire which, believe it or not, opened at the court of Louis XIV with an opera and ballet attached.

La Couronne de Fleurs is a fairly simple set of ditties in which Flora asks her friends (who happen to be nymphs and shepherdesses, of course) to compose odes to Louis XIV's grandeur. The ensuing concert is eventually cut off by the god Pan, however, who explains that it's pointless; try as they might, they can never do justice to the big guy himself. Blin's conceit is that Orphée is part of this brief performance - with Pan's interruption explaining the loss of the third act. Okay, we're never quite sure how Orpheus precisely maps to Louis, but in general the opposition of these two works is hauntingly resonant; Flora recalls Proserpine, the nymph of spring confined to Pluto's court in winter, and of course poor Molière departed for the underworld himself after a performance of Le Malade Imaginaire, never to return.  Blin even dresses Pan as one of Louis's courtiers - hinting that what is being silenced is not just Orphée but Charpentier himself (who soon fell from favor before the rising star of Lully).

So Blin's meta-opera is like a wreath of historic and artistic allusions to love and death - it keeps ramifying subtly in our consciousness even as we watch.  And luckily the director seems to know his ideas are so strong he can keep his staging to an exquisite, evocative minimum - while what design touches he does choose often perform double thematic duty: Flora's ring of roses around the musical consort, for instance (at top), could serve as either a bouquet for Eurydice's wedding or her funeral; likewise, the ghostly shades in Hell wander about in bridal veils.  And I'll never forget Eurydice and Orpheus's slow, sombre march (almost touching) out of the auditorium as Charpentier's gorgeous farewell song unfolded.  In this truncated Orphée, of course, they seem to get away - Orpheus never turns, and Eurydice is never lost again to Hades; death is suspended; it is only in "life" itself (as opposed to "art") that their story is interrupted, and their love destroyed.

Of course the ensemble of talented musicians and vocalists BEMF has by now attracted had a lot to do with the success of the production, too. Local star Aaron Sheehan made a clarion, committed Orphée, but he faced stiff vocal competition from Douglas Williams's powerful Pluton (whose bass notes indeed seemed to scrape the roof of the underworld) as well as Olivier Laquerre's bemused, lyrical Apollo. Meanwhile Mireille Asselin made a delightfully ripe Flora, and Carrie Henneman Shaw a startlingly moving Eurydice; indeed, her death scene, which I've seen dozens of times in countless versions of the myth, gripped me here as it never had before. The chorus was likewise in fine form, with subtle solo turns from Jason McStoots, Michael Kelly and Brenna Wells. The instrumentalists were equally dazzling, under the direction of resident early-music geniuses Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs. The entire production cohered admirably; my only regret regarding it was that it only played for two nights (and over the Thanksgiving weekend, no less)! Perhaps, if the gods smile once more on Orpheus, it will get a second chance at theatrical life.

Tea Lobo, Mireille Asselin and the chorus join Orpheus in song.

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