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.
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.
There are only a handful of festivals that have a real focus—one powerful enough to generate excitement among the musicians and the audience alike. The Boston Early Music Festival, now in tis 16th year is one of the supreme examples. Early music, which can extend from Ars Antiqua through Beethoven, is notorious among people who haven’t taken the plunge as a dry, scholarly variety of music-making, in which the thin, scrapy sounds of out-of-tune, obsolete instruments appeal mightily to a narrow clique of elderly males with unkempt long hair and beards, and perhaps beads and Birkenstocks, and their unprepossessing consorts. I find it amazing that some people can cling to this notion so far into the maturity of the movement. On the contrary, at the Boston Early Music Festival, you will find enthusiastic musicians and listeners of all ages, some of whom migrated from rock and folk backgrounds, who flock to Boston to learn the latest discovery about a score or an instrument, and to enjoy the sensual pleasure and intellectual stimulation of hearing great music played by the most accomplished players in the field. What festival could justify itself more compellingly that that? All you have to do is go to a concert or two, listen, and observe.