The Boston Early Music Festival got off to a glorious start on Sunday afternoon with an imaginative performance of André Campra’s opera-ballet Le Carnaval de Venise at the Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theater. First performed at the Palais Royal in Paris on January 20th, 1699, Le Carnaval was certainly inspired by newly improved relations between Louis XIV and the Venetian Republic, but above all by French fascination with the magic of La Serenissima. The new Boston production, prepared in partnership with the Centre de musique baroque de Versailles, marks the first performance in North America. Additional performances of Le Carnaval de Venise are scheduled for Wednesday, June 14th and Friday, June 16th at 7 pm, and Sunday, June 18th at 3:30 pm.
Born in Aix-en-Provence in 1660, André Campra arrived in Paris in the 1690s, where he soon became known as a composer of stage works, all the while serving as organist at the cathedral of Notre Dame. In contrast to the tradition of his predecessor Jean-Baptiste Lully’s operas, in Campra’s opera-ballets each act contains its own characters and plot, related only in a general way to a central theme.
In Le Carnaval de Venise, a Prologue and three acts are followed by an opera-within-an-opera, concluding with a grand carnival ball. As the Overture began the curtain opened on a scene in the making: a chorus of workers clad in BEMF T-shirts were exhorted by their manager (baritone Christian Immler) to hurry up with the building of the stage set for the upcoming show. As they bustled about, echoing his commands with choral responses, Minerva descended from the heavens bearing a portrait of Louis XIV. Appalled at the delay and disorder before her, she called on the divinities of music, dance, painting, and architecture for assistance. Before our astounded eyes these magnificently costumed spirits proceeded to erect an elegant Baroque theatre complete with tromple l’oeil columns and receding perspective, as all declared homage to the Dauphin (Crown Prince), the true patron of the opera-ballet. In an air calling on the assembled company to turn from the pursuit of war to that of love, Minerva (mezzo Mireille Lebel) displayed a voice of power and agility, with clear phrasing and articulation, and keen attention to the expressive role of ornamentation. Led by Cupid (Alexis Silver), members of the Festival Dance Company delighted us with their wit and agility.
In Act I the scene shifted to Venice. Here we met the central characters: a Venetian lady, Leonore (Karina Gauvin) and her rival Isabelle (Amanda Forsythe), both in love with the dashing French cavalryman, Leandre (baritone Jesse Blumberg). Forced to choose between the two, Leandre picked Isabelle, leaving Leonore to swear revenge and Isabelle in fear of the Venetian noble Rodolfo (bass-baritone Douglas Williams), whom she has spurned. Contrasting vocal timbre identified the two sopranos as characters from the Commedia dell’arte: Gauvin’s rich and round-toned, befitting the role of the wronged woman, Forsythe’s light and agile, suited to that of the naive ingenue. Leonore was attended by a maid, the stalwart alto Virginia Warnken Kelsey, and Isabelle ((following another commedia dell’arte tradition) by a cross-dressed male chaperone, the excellent counter-tenor José Lemos. Offsetting the love intrigue was the arrival of fancifully costumed foreign dancers and revelers, including a remarkable dancing bear.
Act II found Rodolfo alone in the gaming room, consumed with jealousy. When Leonore appeared, the two spurned lovers could swear vengeance against Leandre. Fortune (Mireille Lebel) appeared with her troupe of card players from all nations, happy to execute a masque in her honor. The scene changed to a square in front of Isabelle’s house at night, with Rodolfo awaiting his rival Leandre. As Rodolfo hid, Leandre stationed himself beneath Isabelle’s window and prepared to deliver a serenade along with a company of musicians. In casting the male romantic lead as a baritone rather than the traditional high tenor, Campra broke with the tradition established by Lully and his contemporaries. Jesse Blumberg’s beautiful high notes and clear low range, along with highly nuanced and expressive delivery, made him an ideal choice for the role, while Douglas Williams, both as actor and as singer, exemplified the bluff jealous man familiar from the commedia dell’arte. Leandre’s serenade and Isabelle’s answer were sung in French, but the intervening trio sung in Italian was a classic “sleep scene” such as Lully had borrowed from Italian models, with its characteristic accompaniment of sleep-inducing high recorders.
Act III showed a Venetian piazza with palaces overlooking a canal and a bridge. Alone, Leonore, spurned by Leandre, swears vengeance against him, but when Rodolfo informs her that he has killed Leandre, she accuses him of monstrosity. Rodolfo has resolved to tell Isabelle of Leandre’s death, under cover of another highly entertaining divertissement that held our attention. Led by tenor Jason McStoots with his usual comic verve, two troupes of gondoliers conducted a match to see who was master of the bridge. Four male dancers, joined later by female gondoliers, conducted an elaborate combat employing their punting poles in breathtakingly intricate figures, certainly a highlight of the evening’s entertainment. In the following scene, Isabelle, having learned of Leandre’s death, resolved to take her own life. Before pulling out a dagger, she delivered a wonderfully affecting lament in meltingly expressive style. Just as she was about to stab herself, Leandre appeared to stop her: another masquer had been killed by mistake in his stead. The lovers agreed to meet at the opera house to escape Venice together.
Staged at the opera house, the “opera-within-the opera” presented the story of Orpheus in the Underworld. Here Campra set out to demonstrate his mastery of Italian vocal and instrumental styles. Eurydice (soprano Molly Netter) has already fallen victim to a fatal snakebite on her wedding day, and Orpheus (tenor Aaron Sheehan) has descended to the underworld to bring her back. Pluto ((Christian Immler) called the shades to arms to resist the interloper, but was charmed by Orfeo’s music and agreed to release Eurydice if he would agree not to look back at her. The triumphant lover Orfeo sang a brilliant Da capo aria in classic Italian style. A dance of not-too-discontented Gods and Sprites of Hell followed. A happy shade (soprano Teresa Wakim) sang a virtuosic aria praising Eurydice’s beauty and the lovers set forth. Eurydice’s chaconne was a model of joyful restraint until her sudden outburst, demanding that Orfeo look back at her. As he turned, Pluto snatched Eurydice back to the underworld and the lovers were separated forever.
Olivier Laquerre presided over the final ball as the spirit of Carnival. A powerful figure, his sonorous baritone called on the assembled masquers, both serious and comic, to celebrate the day in feasting, gambling, and loving. It would be hard to imagine a more fitting conclusion to an evening full of multiple pleasures. Stage Director Gilbert Blin miraculously clarified the movements of a large cast of singers and dancers, and designed the magnificent sets. Melinda Sullivan, Dance Director, and Caroline Copeland, choreographer, guided an expert team of Baroque dancers. Costumes by Anna Watkins were nothing short of spectacular. Musical Directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs led the Festival Orchestra from a pair of theorboes, with Concertmaster Robert Mealy heading the five-part string orchestra and Michael Sponseller at the harpsichord. Oboes, recorders, and occasional percussion provided additional color and rhythmic definition. Considerable research went into the preparation of the production and of a new performing edition. Last but not least, festival goers can be grateful for the handsome festival handbook,which contains Jean-François Regnard’s complete libretto with facing English translation by Ellen Hargis, along with several informative articles on both the historical background of Le Carnaval de Venise and present-day performance decisions.
Virginia Newes, who lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.