Theatricals of all kinds were banned in Puritan England, but the return of the Stuart dynasty in 1660 in the person of the pleasure-loving Charles II brought about a revival of elaborate court festivities that included music and dancing as well as hunting. Two were presented in “An Evening of Chamber Opera”: Venus and Adonis, by John Blow, and Actéon, by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, as part of the Boston Early Music Festival, Saturday, June 13, 8 pm, at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall.
Described as a “Masque for the entertainment of the king,” John Blow’s chamber opera Venus and Adonis, first performed in the early 1680s, featured the king’s mistress, Moll Davies, as Venus and her daughter as Cupid. Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s pastorale Actéon, another Ovidian tale, was created around the same time, quite possibly for the household of the Grand Dauphin, son of Louis XIV.
Stage director Gilbert Blin and choreographer Lucy Graham collaborated in an exquisite production in which the two “mini-operas” were framed as courtly entertainment, perhaps after a hunting party, with courtiers and their children — five accomplished members of Rebecca Kenneally’s BEMF Youth Ensemble — as both performers and participants. Elegant costumes in off-white tones by Anna Watkins remained the same throughout both operas; scarves, cloaks, and masks identified the singers and dancers variously as shepherdesses, huntsmen, cupids, nymphs, and hounds. The onstage chamber orchestra was ably led by violinist Robert Mealy.
As a court lady playing Cupid, Canadian mezzo-soprano Mireille Lebel acted as mistress of ceremonies in Venus and Adonis, singing the beautifully nuanced recitatives and dancelike airs of the Prologue with equal stylistic sensitivity. The opening recitative of Act I, with soprano Amanda Forsythe as a resplendent Venus and baritone Jesse Blumberg as Adonis, was deeply affecting in its simplicity. This was in contrast to the divertissement of the second act “lesson scene,” a ground bass air in which Cupid teaches the little cupids to spell “mercenary.” In Act III, the concluding aria and motet-like chorus as Venus mourns the death of Adonis couldn’t help but remind us of Dido’s lament by Blow’s pupil, Henry Purcell.
In Actéon, the lovers were played by soprano Teresa Watkins as Diana and tenor Aaron Sheehan as Actéon. Actéon has the misfortune to come upon Diana (in full court dress!) as she bathes in a secluded glade. Incensed at this assault on her virgin modesty, she turns him into a stag, whereupon he is torn to pieces by his own hounds. Juno (grandly played and sung by mezzo-soprano Laura Pudwell) justifies Actéon’s fate as her revenge for Jupiter’s dalliance with Europa. In his portrayal of the dying Actéon, Sheehan managed to sing with beautiful tone and expressive articulation and to collapse gracefully at Diana’s feet, all while encumbered with a large stag mask. Once again the BEMF dance ensemble, consisting of Tina Cassidy, Caroline Copeland, and Carlos Fittante, underscored the action and provided diversion, employing baroque styles that perfectly reflected the measure of the music.
Saturday night’s performance was a polished reprise of that offered by the Boston Early Music Festival concert series last November. The chamber opera series continues next fall under the same direction with Handel’s Acis and Galatea. Amanda Forsythe and Aaron Sheehan will sing the title roles.
Ed: This is one of 11 full reviews by Boston Musical Intelligencer reviewers of concerts from the 2009 Boston Early Music Festival.