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.
This is the third year of BEMF’s wonderful new institution of annual chamber opera performances. These not only help us get through the alternate years, when there is no main festival in June, nor any full opera production, they set a standard for authenticity and for the imaginative recreation of centuries-old practices and aesthetics in such a way that an audience of cultivated non-experts can enjoy the performance and walk away exhilarated. This was certainly the mood in late November last year, when BEMF turned to Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. None of the other chamber operas produced so far is particularly obscure — not John Blow’s Venus and Adonis, nor Charpentier’s Actéon, nor Handel’s Acis and Galatea. On the contrary, they are central to the history of the genre, and they are performed, although not very often. This year’s offering, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, is the most popular pre-Mozart opera of all. It fills the needs of conservatories, young sopranos or mezzos, as well as ageing divas, who wish to apply their wisdom to the tragic Queen of Carthage. We have reviewed a number of modest, but very successful productions in the Review over the past year or so.
The Boston Early Music Festival’s chamber opera series got off to a brilliant start last year with a double bill of John Blow’s Venus and Adonis and Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Actéon, and there was much anticipation for this year’s production of Handel’s Acis and Galatea in the version performed at Cannons, the estate of James Brydges, soon to be awarded the title, Duke of Chandos, by which he is best known both to historians and to Handel enthusiasts. Some 45 years had passed since the first performances of Blow’s and Charpentier’s works, but this kind of entertainment, a partially-staged masque, or pastorale, was not yet outmoded in London, where its supporters defended the English tradition of Blow and Purcell against its critics, who favored Italian opera. For his then extremely wealthy patron, Handel was able to produce a simple, straightforward work of great beauty, which, although originally designed for private performance at Cannons, with its literary coterie, art collection, gardens, and waterworks, enjoyed a future as a more elaborately staged operatic performance.