Opera / The Berkshire Review in Boston

Boston Early Music Festival Presents Two One-Act Chamber Operas: John Blow’s Venus and Adonis and Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s, Actéon

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Amanda Forsythe and Tyler Duncan in John Blow's Venus and Adonis, Photo David Walker
Amanda Forsythe and Tyler Duncan in John Blow's Venus and Adonis, Photo David Walker

Boston Early Music Festival presents the First of New Chamber Opera Series: two one-act operas at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall on November 29, 2008, 8 pm

Venus and Adonis, a Masque by John Blow (1649-1710)
Actéon, a Pastorale by Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704)

Pre-concert talk at 7 pm with the opera directors, Keller Room at Jordan Hall

Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs – Musical Directors
Gilbert Blin – Stage Director
Lucy Graham – Choreographer
Anna Watkins – Costume Designer
Robert Mealy – Orchestra Leader

Venus – Amanda Forsythe
Adonis – Tyler Duncan
Cupid – Mireille Lebel
Actéon – Aaron Sheehan
Diane – Theresa Wakim
Junon – Pamela Dellal

The ensembles (hunters, shepherdesses, nymphs) include the soloists as well as local singers Michael Barrett, Lydia Brotherton, Jason McStoots, Brenna Wells, and Douglas Williams and Canadians Olivier Laquerre, and Julien Patenaude; four Baroque dancers; and five children from the BEMF Youth Ensemble, led by Rebecca Kenneally.

This past Friday and Saturday I attended two operatic performances, one at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the other at Boston’s New England Conservatory, which began decorously enough, but both ended in an uproar one might have expected to find at a major prize fight. Both audiences were absolutely thrilled by what they saw and heard. I didn’t count the curtain calls, but the audience’s response to Tristan und Isolde under Daniel Barenboim conjured up legendary evenings of many years past, and the baroque and early music enthusiasts who packed Jordan Hall to attend the Boston Early Music Festival’s first annual production of baroque chamber operas was no less uninhibited in their cheers, whoops, and clapping, expressing their well-deserved appreciation of a brilliant start to an important new series. Although my account of Tristan will appear separately below, I wish to present them together, because of what they tell us about opera and its current state.

Not unlike the Met, one might well attend a BEMF concert in order to hear their specialized repertoire performed correctly and with exceptional skill, just as one might seek out a restaurant renowned for perfect homard à la nage, and one would come away perfectly satisfied. It takes something else, on the other hand, to let loose that kind of frenzy from an audience usually known for its sedate interests and manners. This is the music and theater of the ancien régime, after all, no? After the superb, much more elaborate production of Lully’s Psyché last year (now available on CD, soon to be reviewed here), I found it easier simply to take it as a musical and theatrical revelation and work of extremely high quality, which impressed and delighted even newcomers to the musical world before Bach and Handel. This much plainer production of two chamber operas, modeled on their original, partly amateur, country house performances, which included many of the same crew as the grand, fully staged opera, revealed the degree to which BEMF is bringing off something more intangible, and really quite unique. This magic comes from the collective musicianship and flair of Lucy Graham, Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs and their musicians, singers, and dancers, but also from Gilbert Blin’s deep understanding of the psychology of Baroque theater, both formal and informal, and his uncanny ability to bring the audience into its spell. No more than Psyché, the chamber operas were not merely an impressive spectacle, but a microcosm, part real (i.e. historical) and part fantastical, in which M. Blin and his performers can seduce us into living for a few hours. The means consist not so much of the physical presentation as the ability and feeling with which the musicians, singers and dancers communicate with us through inflection and gesture. My eyes were always fixed on the performers, and through them Jordan Hall’s handsome turn of the century panelling was transformed into that of an English or French country house.

Guests and Children Enjoy the Opera, photo David Walker
Guests and Children Enjoy the Opera, photo David Walker

BEMF presented the operas as private entertainments, performed as an evening diversion during a hunting party in which hosts and guests, professionals and amateurs, adults and children mingled, as they created the sounds and movements scripted to enact two Ovidian myths, the sad transformations and deaths of Adonis and Actaeon. To recreate this impression and to give the Jordan Hall audience the impression that they were witnessing this party as guests, all participants were dressed for the gathering, and actors in the classical scenes were distinguished only by scant pieces of drapery and occasional props (bows and arrows, hunting spears, etc.), and this was prepared by some amusing action recalling Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. M. Blin continued this conceit throughout the musical interludes and dances in Blow’s Venus and Adonis, in which they are disjoined from the action, and less prominently in the more focused Charpentier.

As dramas both the librettos set by John Blow in his masque and Marc-Antoine Charpentier in his pastorale en musique are fairly straightforward. The genres specified in their early editions prepare us for something lighter than full tragedy. In their treatments there is little we do not know from the play of Pyramus and Thisbe in Midsummer Night’s Dream, ignoring the rustic comedy. The familiarity of the classical subjects and Ovid’s verse, the limited sets and costumes, and the recognition of familiar, even intimate people onstage inevitably compromised the theatrical deception and produced a certain self-conscious irony, which would inhibit the drama from becoming a real tragedy. Gilbert Blin is keenly aware of these ironies and improbabilities, most pointedly evident in the numerous animal parts, danced or enacted by children or adults wearing animal heads, and in the scene of Actaeon’s discovery of the nude Diana and her nymphs, where an improvised curtain falls, revealing ladies of the court who are anything but nude. Most poignant is the representation of Adonis’ wound by a handful of red petals, foreshadowing his transformation into an anemone, and delicately trivializing his and Venus’ loss and suffering. As long as the pleasures of the hunt and its celebrations are at hand, nothing can be too serious. Yet, thanks to Blin’s conception and Aaron Sheehan’s acting, the absurdity of Actaeon’s metamorphosis does not undercut, but only heightens its solemnity. As Sheehan sings: “Ma parole n’est plus qu’une confuse voix,” mimicking the gradual degradation of his speech into animal sounds, the process of transformation, always so carefully wrought by Ovid in words, was vividly brought to life.

M. Blin keeps an attentive touch on this mercurial oscillation between the comic and, if not the tragic, at least the pathetic, which runs through both the French and the English opera, which itself owed much to the French influences in Restoration culture. It is also characteristically Ovidian. This double intent is heightened by the interventions of the courtly audience in song and dance, giving the operas, especially Venus and Adonis, something of the quality of a play within a play. M. Blin’s approach shows a sophisticated understanding of the operas and their theatrical and literary origins, but we should remember that this is not the only viable approach. As far as the libretti are concerned, it is equally legitimate to present them “straight,” as mini-tragedies hermetically sealed by a proscenium, and by no means boring for a modern audience.
Also, for Blow’s and Charpentier’s audiences, as for many museum-goers today, the appearance, clothing, and gesture of the divine and human characters were imprinted on the mind by the art of their time. By the mid-seventeenth centuries Bolognese precedents had imposed a stereotype on the ever-popular scene of Actaeon’s encounter with Diana and its dire consequences. The carriage, the gesture, the way of playing out the story all came to life in Blin’s production, which was permeated with this artistic tradition. M. Blin and Ms. Graham and their impeccably trained cast acted with a seamless blend between courtly affectations and dramatic gesture. One had the feeling of the world of Titian, the Carracci, Albani, and Poussin coming to life on stage.

So far it has seemed natural enough to discuss the two operas as one evening. This points to the way in which the continuity of “sets” and costumes stressed the communality of the works, which is both a virtue and a defect—to my mind the only criticism worth mentioning. It is true that one opera is English and the other French. Their dramatic approach to the material is quite different. Charpentier is polished where Blow is provincial and rough. However, since both works are relatively well known, it is excusable, actually enlightening, for M. Blin to have stressed what they have in common: the courtly environment in which professionals and their noble patrons mingled on stage and the French cultural milieu, which under Charles II was the dominant influence at the English court. Moreover the operas are virtually contemporary, being first performed around 1683. The description of Venus and Adonis by an early source as a masque distinguishes it from French opera and places it in the English tradition brought to a peak a half century earlier by Ben Jonson, but in spite of the loose connections of the songs and dances it most definitely emulates French opera, a trend Blow’s successor at court, Henry Purcell was to refine further in his Dido and Aeneas.

The casts were the same in both operas, except for the principles, who alternately took places in the chorus. All of these and most of the chorus will be familiar to BEMF regulars, especially anyone who attended Psyché. Amanda Forsythe (Venus), Tyler Duncan (Adonis), Mireille Lebel (Cupid), Aaron Sheehan (Actéon), Theresa Wakim (Diane), Pamela Dellal (Junon) were all consistently impressive in voice and in their elegant and assured historical style. They are all imaginative and witty actors and cut fine figures on the stage. Their thorough preparation in period style and their extensive experience in singing as an ensemble at BEMF have given them a natural expertise which is second to none. Paul O’Dette, Stephen Stubbs, and Robert Mealy (who also contributed a learned and interesting program note) and their band are similarly so comfortable in the repertoire and each other that they played as actors in the dramas, especially when they anticipated the singers’ lines or followed them, or ventured imitative sounds to accompany the action.

In the performance of music and stage works before Mozart, it doesn’t get any better than this, and the perfection BEMF achieved marks a striking contrast to the flaws of the Metropolitan Opera’s inspired Tristan und Isolde, which were nonetheless acceptable in terms of contemporary standards.

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