“Why is it always shepherds? You see them everywhere!” This question, taken from Molière’s comedy, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, expresses an inescapable reality of seventeenth-century French theater. It is also a fitting sentiment for the Boston Early Music Festival’s most recent performance: the program, given on November 26 at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, featured two of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s pastoral works, La Couronne de Fleurs (The Crown of Flowers) and his unfinished opera, La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers (Orpheus’s Descent into Hades). La Couronne is a hymn of praise to Louis XIV, in which the shepherds and shepherdesses compete to “best sing [the king’s] glorious deeds,” competing for a crown of flowers. The work was originally intended to serve as a prologue to Molière’s final comedy, La malade imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid), which was performed at the royal court. Rival composer Jean-Baptiste Lully’s monopoly on staged musical dramas, however, forced the group to abandon the musical encomium, which the composer apparently “dusted off” for his primary employer, the French princess Marie de Guise. The composer’s unfinished opera, though based on Ovid’s tragic tale of Orpheus’s lost love, is set in the pastoral fields of ancient Greece, as the shepherds and shepherdesses share the famous couple’s joys and sorrows.
The programming of the concert was especially clever, opening and closing with portions of La Couronne, between which the two acts of La Descente were given. Aside from the convenience of using the same performers for both works, bits of text from each work offered subtle connections between the two, including a reference to the great Greek heroes in the La Couronne and a mention of the primary interlocutor of La Couronne (La Flore) by Orpheus’s beloved in La Descente. The program notes, composed by Charpentier expert John Powell, were well written and informative; stage director Gilbert Blin also offered an interesting alternative hypothesis regarding the first performance of La Couronne, citing circumstances following the end of Charpentier’s collaborations with Molière. (Given the appearance of the names of the members of the “Great Guise Music” in the manuscript score, it has been assumed that the work was performed for the composer’s primary patron, or for one of the nobility in her immediate circle.)
The orchestra, led by BEMF musical directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, was nearly flawless in their performance, both technically and artistically. The singers offered strong performances as soloists, as well as stellar ensemble performances. In keeping with Baroque theatrical tradition, the musical ensemble was also joined by dancers, all of whom executed their part in expert fashion. Both works featured outstanding performances by the leads, namely Mireille Asselin’s “Flore” in La Couronne, and Aaron Sheehan’s “Orphée” in La Descente. Aside from their exceptional musical artistry, both displayed an excellent grasp of the “elegant artifice” of the Baroque acting style.
The performance was given in period staging, including attractive costuming and exhilarating dance. Owing to the relatively small size of Jordan Hall’s stage, the “set” was confined to a single ring of flowers (assumedly representing the “Crown of Flowers” of La Couronne) and a single scroll-arm bench. Though minimal, the scenery represented the “spirit” of the works’ respective settings; additionally, the stage director’s use of the limited space was very effective, creating a fluid series of solo and ensemble motions. In general, the actors’ use of gesture was well executed, though one of the performers used a style of gesture that was too natural for the style of the period, failing to execute the calculated artifice of gesture and expression as described in period treatises. “Naturalness” may seem like a strange criticism to the modern reader, though we should keep in mind that the natural style of acting was not accepted as appropriate to the musical stage until the eighteenth century, nor was it common practice until the nineteenth century.
Both works featured a number of delightful as well as poignant moments. Flore’s (Mireille Asselin) invocation of the coming of spring at the opening of La Couronne, for example, was immediately engaging — graceful and effervescent, (and quite impressive considering that Asselin had been holding a still pose at the front of the stage for almost thirty minutes while the audience was seated). In the second half of the work, the duets between Rosélie and Aramanthe (Brenna Wells and Carrie Henneman Shaw, respectively), following Flore’s declaration that all would share the prize, served as perhaps the most charming vocal ensembles on the program. In La Descente, Eurydice’s (Carrie Henneman Shaw) onstage death was deeply moving: the heroine’s sudden cry, the touching simplicity of her final words (“Orpheus, farewell; I die”), followed by the hero’s moving soliloquy (as ever, a powerfully moving performance by Sheehan), and closed by the chorus’s words of horror at fate’s cruelty as well as their sympathy for Orpheus’s suffering.
Joel Schwindt is a PhD candidate in Musicology at Brandeis University, wrote his master’s thesis on Charpentier and is now an acknowledged expert on the composer.