This season’s BEMF Chamber Opera offerings were two interrupted and in these performances fascinatingly conjoined works by Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704): the charming pastorales La Couronne de Fleurs and La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers. There was much to enchant the attendees at Jordan Hall this past Saturday evening, just as there will be for those within the Rockport Music Festival’s seaside Shalin Liu Performance Center tonight.
With a minimum of scenic support, BEMF’s Dance Ensemble, Chamber (Instrument) Ensemble, and Vocal Ensemble were interwoven by Stage Director Gilbert Blin’s wonderfully imaginative visual plan for these two somewhat disparate tales.
One entered Jordan Hall to behold an intriguing sight: a stage floor bedecked with a large circle of flowers, a slumbering woodland nymph, her back turned to the audience and resting on an imagined bank, birdsongs filling the air, and a group of chairs and instruments within the floral circle. Other than some interesting background lighting there were no sets or stage appurtenances other than this. I was a bit surprised, remembering the ingenious sets that had enhanced Blin’s earlier settings for BEMF’s chamber operas, but as it turned out, there was plenty to come that would obviate any sense of visual deprivation. And, truth be told, the Jordan Hall stage would not have been as accommodating for the sets of yore as the smaller stages of past presentations had been.
Blin’s scheme to unite these two operas was at once ingenious and one that had a possible historic antecedent. As he stated in his note: “It is likely that La Couronne des Fleurs (LCF) was in 1685 a circumstantial piece linked to a real poetic contest, La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers (LDOE), which is dated from 1686, was without doubt an opera to be performed on stage…While having all the dramatic elements that follow the style of French opera of the period, LDOE is an incomplete dramatic composition…the score stops at the end of the second act….Charpentier’s unfinished manuscript leaves us with many questions…importantly, why didn’t he finish it?”
Blin’s note goes on to explain why he chose to conjoin the two operas as an opportunity to create “…the concept of ‘theatre within the theater’…” as “…La Courrone de Fleurs is already constructed to include the successive telling of four stories. The tale of Orpheus is simply presented as another entry in the poetic contest. As the plot of LCF also contains an interruption – a character gives the order to stop the poetic contest – we can interrupt the performance of LDOE, just as the manuscript imposes.”
Further, the court composer of the time, Lully, possessed a royal privilege that allowed only operatic performances of his own works. This Blin used as an opportunity to have a costumed actor (Ryan Began) impersonating Lully imperiously halt the proceedings, a neat visual and dramatic means of “justifying” LDOE’s interruption.
I’ve spent time on all this before getting to the actual reviewing of the production to underscore the high-mindedness of Blin’s conceptions and BEMF’s brave realizations of them. It’s for reasons such as these that these biennial festivals have garnered such worldwide appeal and fascination, and why Boston’s reputation as a home for world-class early music performances has grown to the extent it has.
Now, on to the performances. The compelling beauty of the stage movements of the singers and dancers were the work of Melinda Sullivan. She must have enjoyed staging dances for her colleague Carlos Fittante, who was a lead co-choreographer in BEMF’s Almira production. The other lithe dancers were Olsi Gjeci, Caitlin Klinger, and Alexis Silver. The BEMF Vocal Ensemble featured Mireille Asselin, Jesse Blumberg, Lydia Brotherton, Michael Kelly, Olivier Laquerre, Thea Lobo, Jason McStoots, Carrie Henneman Shaw, Aaron Sheehan, and Megan Stapleton. Of these there were many mellifluous moments of elegant ensemble singing, and really fine solo singing and acting by tenor Aaron Sheehan as a golden-voiced Orphée, whose strummed lute calms the underworld’s Furies, and the shepherds Mirtil and Florestan, the former sung by the vocally splendid baritone Michael Kelly, and the latter by BEMF’s busiest gifted tenor/actor Jason McStoots. The blossom-bequeathing Flore of LCF was nicely essayed by soprano Mireille Asselin. In LDOE, Jesse Blumberg was appropriately powerful and stern as Pluton, God of the Underworld, a perfect contrast to Asselin, who in this opera sang the role of Proserpine, the wife of Pluton who feels Orphée’s pain and convinces her husband to allow Euridice, here sung quite sympathetically by Carrie Henneman Shaw, to leave Hades in the company of her musical husband. Olivier Laquerre as Apollon was regally musical and poetic. The beautiful costumes were once again by Anna Watkins. Throughout the evening the immensely talented BEMF Chamber Ensemble played with great panache, “chaired” by Paul O’Dette and Steven Stubbs, and led by the sensitive and musical violinist/Concertmaster Robert Mealy, Gonzalo X. Ruiz and Kathryn Montoya spectacular with their oboes and recorders. All these players, indeed, as legitimate characters in the dramas, elevated the essential instrumental accompaniments to heights of virtuosity.
As I hope is clear, this was an evening of shared brilliance from all of the production’s participants, both on the stage and behind the scenes. Kudoses for all of them.
Of several indelible visual memories, two stand out: the sheer fabric-shrouded fantômes of the underworld, who as they mutely and dolorously observed the surrounding goings-on, were so ingeniously costumed that they appeared hauntingly two-dimensional in contrast with their fellow underworld denizens; and the shiver-inducing beauty of the final moments of the evening, when all the characters of La Currone de Fleurs encircled the orchestra and slowly bowed to those wonderful players in courtly fashion in obeisance and thanks for making their singing and dancing so affective and memorable. I suspect many in the audience would have been happily with them on stage to add their gratitude.