One of the many delights of the annual Boston Early Music Festival is the series of “Fringe Concerts” produced by a wide variety of soloists and ensembles. These concerts provide some of the best opportunities to sample Boston’s own crop of homegrown early music performers, as well as visiting artists. First Church Boston hosted the June 13 performance of Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville’s delightful operatic miniature, “Bacchus et Erigone. The performance showcased the Harvard Early Music Society and was part of Early Music America’s Young Performers Festival, a new initiative featuring early music performances from college and university ensembles.
“Bacchus et Erigone” is the second act of the opéra-ballet Les fêtes de Paphos, which premiered in Paris in 1758. A different librettist contributed each of the three acts, but they all present vignettes from the classic love stories in ancient Greek mythology: Venus and Adonis; Bacchus and Erigone; and Cupid and Psyche. Mondonville (c. 1711-1772), whose reputation in modern times has been overshadowed by Rameau, was a gifted composer and enjoyed the patronage of Mme. Pompadour in Paris as well as many other prestigious posts. While a rather flighty story, the score for “Bacchus et Erigone” reveals a composer very at home with styles of the later French Baroque, but who readily integrated more contemporary and “foreign” styles.
All four soloists were very good, but the clearest lines and most stylistically nuanced performances came from Claire Raphaelson as Erigone and Owen McIntosh as Mercury. The opening aria presented a slight balance issue between Raphaelson and the orchestra, but it is a sign of the careful direction of Edward Jones that this was quickly remedied and did not arise for the rest of the performance. The music for Erigone is vigorously diverse, and Raphaelson easily transitioned between the sweet lyricism of “Dieux de Cythère, enchantés ce séjour” (Gods of Cythera, enchant this place) to the more rousing and vivacious energy of her closing aria, “Cessez, guerriers, cessez …” (Warriors, desist…). The final aria was particularly remarkable as she skillfully brought more energy and verve to each reiteration of the “Cessez” text, lending a charming sense of chutzpah to the character. Ulysses Thomas provided a solid and musical performance as Bacchus, but seemed less comfortable with some of the ornamentation and dramatic gesture. Thomas’s vocal strength was a boon to the active and tuneful arias, and his duet “Amour, lance tes traits” (Love, loose your arrows) with Raphaelson was lovely and well balanced. The florid duet between Jacob Cooper as Comus, Bacchus’ son, and McIntosh was also a highlight of the performance, as both singers skillfully navigated the melismatic and virtuosic score.
The chorus, too, was excellent, illuminating the more contemporary sound in “La victoire voie à ta voix” (Victory answers your summons), charming text painting in “L’Amour suit cet objet charmant” (Love follows this charming being), and elegant phrasing in “Chantons dans nos fêtes charmantes” (In our charming festivals). The Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra played well throughout, with a good sensitivity to the difference between obbligato and continuo roles. The strings carried the orchestra, deftly switching between precisely articulated dotted rhythms and more lyrical and legato lines. The winds were not consistently reliable, but moments such as the flute duet with Erigone in “Dieux de Cythère” revealed skilled and sensitive players.
The final moments of the short opera featured a suite of dances, which, in addition to some of the interludes, showcased the musicality of the orchestra. The final tambourin, choreographed by Ken Pierce, was a delightful way to close the hour, and transform the rather modern setting of First Church Boston into an elegant Parisian théâtre of yesteryear.
Rebecca Marchand holds a Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of California, Santa Barbara and serves on the faculty of Longy School of Music and Boston Conservatory.