The recent biennial weeklong Boston Early Music Festival (June 14-21) drew unusual attention for presenting full stagings of all three of Monteverdi’s surviving operas (Orfeo, The Return of Ulysses, The Coronation of Poppea) plus the Vespers of 1610. This in addition to the Festival’s usual 9 a.m. to midnight concerts of a great variety of music from the Middle Ages to Bach, featuring noted performers from all over the world. Enthusiasm ran high all week and audiences were large, especially for the Monteverdi events.
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.
There is a lot of talk about long operas these days, in the light of the Boston Early Music Festival’s triumphant production of Steffani’s Niobe, Regina di Tebe, which, as cut by the directors, lasted about 3 hours 45 minutes; and now an important revival of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell is coming up, which also promises to be a long evening, potentially as long a five hours. Huntley Dent has just reviewed Henrik Ibsen’s early rarity, Emperor and Galilean, presented by the National Theatre, London, with the play’s two parts of four hours each reduced to a single evening of three and a half hours. It seems this goes against the modern grain, although blockbuster movies tend to be long and certain genres of popular novels very long. Yet Francesca Zambello, in her interview with Seth Lachterman for the Review, pointed out her concern to keep the Glimmerglass production of Carmen within temporal bounds that would be acceptable to a wide audience (in actuality 2 hours, 50 minutes, with intermissions, which is pretty well standard), and length is usually the first thing an operatic neophyte complains about.
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.