IN: Reviews

329-Years-Later Circé Casts Spells Again


BEMF’s Scholarly Adepts Make Way for Artificers and Artistes

Jonathan Woody (Kathy Wittman photo)

Boston Early Music Festival’s much anticipated Centerpiece Opera, Henri Desmarest’s five-act Circé (to a libretto of Louise-Geneviève Gillot de born Gillot de Beaucourt), kept an enthusiastic full house alert for three- and one-half hours at the Cutler Majestic Theater yesterday afternoon. (continuing through June 11th)

The 15,000 words of essays on Circé in the $15 BEMF souvenir volume testify to the deep thinking that brought about the rebirth of this rarity. It falls within the category of tragedie musique a genre popularized in the Baroque era by Lully. Such operas served to edify the king and exemplify regality with stately rhythmic structures and consonant harmonies. Most adapted Greek myth and tragedy, hence its name.  

An enchantress well-versed in potions and sorcery, Circe appears often in ancient literature as the prototype of the sexual and predatory woman. In de Beaucourt’s telling, she can also passingly exhibit regret and forgiveness.  She is best known as a character in Homer’s Odyssey, where she falls in love with Odysseus and lures him and his crew to a potion-laced feast where she turns several of the men into swine. They all remain on her island for a year until she frees them, directs Odysseus home, and blocks mortals from the island forever.* (Click HERE for the synopsis)

Working between Lully and Charpentier, composer Henri Desmarest (1661–1741) had at least three successes on the Palais Royal boards before succumbing to the consequences of unwelcome revelations of ghostwriter status and an elopement…and just maybe the arrival of his betters such as Rameau and Charpentier.

His well-born and well-married librettist, Louise-Geneviève Gillot de born Gillot de Beaucourt, (1650 – 24 March 1718) also suffered from a career curtailing court cabal, but not before she became the first woman to have a work performed at the Royal Academy of Music in France. Yet one wonders whether BEMF chose her solely on the basis of her gender. In Ellen Hargis’s translations, the words, projected on a whimsical proclamation scroll in a serif type, lacked poetic grandeur. I asked a French scholar, Anne Davenport for her thoughts.

FLE: The libretto, touted as being an important work of a woman, seemed rather bland in translation. Does it sound more literary and/or more poetic in French?

AD: It would be quite hard to render the special flavor of the French Baroque in English. Maybe English masques during Charles I’s and Charles II’s reigns… But French formalism is quite repugnant to the English, who value being natural. Part of the aesthetic of the French is that wild passions are forced into a highly formal, courtly language, producing a sort of tortured, Baroque effect. It’s hard to preserve that strange beauty in English translation. Think of the regular formality of the French landscape versus the wild irregularity of the English Garden.

FLE: I think also how Dido’s lament in Purcell reached into the depths of human emotion whereas Circe’s lament appeared as formalistic artifice. Beaucourt ain’t Shakespeare

AD: Exactly. It’s like a very low-grade version of Racine — so utterly different from Shakespeare. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the French did not appreciate Shakespeare. He was rediscovered by the Romantics in the early 19th. Delacroix painted himself as Hamlet all the time.

Two translation possibilities:

Karina Gauvin and Aaron Sheehan (Kathy Wittman photo)

Non, je ne saurais vous engager ma foi,
La chaîne de l’hymen me parait trop pesante: Si le nom d’amant m’épouvante,
Le nom d’époux me fait trembler d’effroi.

Astérie via Hargis
No, I cannot pledge you my troth,
The chain of Hymen seems too heavy for me: If the name “lover” is appalling to me,
The name “spouse” makes me shudder with horror.

Astérie via Davenport
No, I could not pledge you my troth, Sir.
The iron chain of marriage seems unbearably heavy to me.
And if the name of lover prompts me to a terrified flight
The name of husband makes me shudder with dread. 

Under violinist/leader Robert Mealy, the BEMF Orchestra played with impeccable tonal refinement, artful sway, and elegance of phrasing. The continuo grouping of David Morris, viola da gamba; Michael Sponseller, harpsichord; (music directors) Paul O’Dette, Stephen Stubbs with Charles Weaver, theorbo & Baroque guitar; could also produce a marvelous grittiness for certain dances and accompanied recitatives with thrumming glory.

The promising overture, perhaps anticipating Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, or maybe Blow’s Venus and Adonis, pretty much encapsulated all the subsequent predictable and relentless cadences that followed…aside from some few outlying surprises that deserved to be in the highlight disc. Desmarest’s benignly neglected score could scarcely have held our interest through the 3.5-hour span without significant stage business. Nor could Beaucourt’s libretto be considered a page turner. But we had plenty to look at. And some dramatic coups de theater, such as Ulisse’s nightmare sequence in which a mime impersonated the spirit of the dreamer, a scene of priestesses tripping fantastically with urns and bowls of fire, and the dance of vivifying potted plants and marble statutes, left vivid impressions.

To be sure, the well-lighted scenery, singing, dancing, playing, and costuming consistently maintained BEMF’s high standards.

With 20 principal singers, and dozens of choristers and dancers, the compact stage (the foliar wing flats must have taken up half the floor space…could they have been retracted for indoor scenes?) was often densely peopled with as many as 40 individuals, though single characters could also deliver soliloquies without appearing lost. Stage director Gilbert Blin blocked the singers (There being essentially no props to interact with, they mainly parked and barked or simply crisscrossed except when sharing the stage with dancers) in highly stylized gestural language, giving us static attitudes and formal tableaux vivants—sometimes vexatious, sometimes a bit fey, but the arms and hands of the most adept sufficiently semaphored emotion; some exponents even seemed metrically attuned enough to be ghost conducting. Blin also designed the scenery based on his extensive collection of period art. Ripped from paintings and engravings, his many, many, drops and flats lent courtly gloire to the mise-en scène, transporting us to the confines of a Baroque jewel box. In addition, he provisioned a wave machine and imagined a marvelous pair of columns of crossing vertical clouds that concealed magical entrances and exits. He gave the stagehands much to do for the final conflagration.

Jérôme Kaplan designed something like 100 astonishingly detailed, multi-layered glad rags. Sashaying by in a succession of textile fireworks, they provided endlessly varied visual delights…to the extent that they upstaged the inkjet-printed flats, which appeared dull in comparison. The latter needed the impasto of the set-painter’s art. Kelly Martin’s lighting retained the basic qualities of candlelight, while expanding the expressive palette. We wondered, though, why his scallop-shell footlights didn’t seem to cast any period-correct rays.

The BEMF Dance Company, Melinda Sullivan, Dance Director, with Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière & Pierre-François Dollé, Choreographers & Dancers; Stéphanie Brochard, Julian Donahue, Junichi Fukuda, Olsi Gjeci, Caitlin Klinger, Isaiah Newby, Alexis Silver, Sonam Tshedzom Tingkhye occupied almost as much stage time as the singers and received many show-stopping ovations. Borrowing elements from stately dances as well as ballet, these terpsichoreans triumphed with a variety of choreography, from lighter-than-air petite batteries to grotesqueries of daemonic horreurs.  

The principal singers, as well as the choristers and subordinate artists adapted with admirable consistency to Blin’s style. Not a single disappointment did we hear in the vocal department.
Karina Gauvin, Circé: Held court with engagement and tonal splendor, depicting enormous mood swings with authority.
Aaron Sheehan, Ulisse: Great pipes, though portrayed hero, lover, and cad with little differentiation.
Teresa Wakim, Astérie: Sweet tones for vulnerability and anger.
Jesse Blumberg, Elphénor: Dramatic suicide and return from the underworld
Amanda Forsythe, Éolie: Our local favorite continues to spin beautiful vocal lines
Douglas Williams, Polite: Great chemistry with Astérie and added believably to style mastery

Hannah De Priest, L’Amour: shot cupid’s darts with irresistible warmth and great liveliness of tone
Nola Richardson, Une Nymphe & Une Prêtresse & Une Néréide: a fine vocal temptress with excellent projection
Mindy Ella Chu, Une Prêtresse: we enjoyed her play with flames and vocal fire
Mireille Lebel, Minerve: had everything right, voice, style, posture
Brian Giebler, Un Amant fortuné & Une Euménide:  shining haute contre with great gestural command
Jason McStoots, Phantase & Une Euménide: a distinctively focused memorable voice
James Reese, Un Amant fortuné & Mercure: clarity of  expression…a wily Mercure
Kyle Stegall, Une Songe & Aquilon: his command of the North Winds made us shudder
Daniel Fridley, Une Euménide: enjoyed tormenting guilty wenches
Michael Galvin, Phaebétor: combined resonance with facility
Jonathan Woody, Le Grand Prêtre du Temple de l’Amour: outstanding presence and command
Ashley Mulcahy, mezzo-soprano; David Evans, tenor

Amanda Forsythe and Karina Gauvin (Kathy Wittman photo)
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.

Circé (continuing through June 11th at the Cutler Majestic)

Music by Henry Desmarest (1661–1741) Libretto by Louise-Geneviève Gillot de Saintonge (1650–1718) Livret of 1694 edited by Gilbert Blin English Translation by Ellen Hargis First Performance: Paris, Académie Royale de Musique, Salle du Palais-Royal, November 1694

Aaron Sheehan (Kathy Wittman Photo)

Paul O’Dette & Stephen Stubbs, Musical Directors
Gilbert Blin, Stage Director
Robert Mealy, Orchestra Director
Melinda Sullivan, Dance Director

Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière & Pierre-François Dollé, Choreographers
Jérôme Kaplan, Costume Designer
Gilbert Blin, Set Designer
Kelly Martin, Lighting Designer
Ellen Hargis, Assistant Stage Director
Alexander McCargar, Assistant Scenic Designer
Kathleen Fay, Executive Producer


Robert Mealy, Julie Andrijeski, Johanna Novom, Cynthia Roberts & Beth Wenstrom, dessus de violon
Sarah Darling, Peter Spissky & Anna Griffis, haute-contre
Miloš Valent & Dagmar Valentová, taille
Daniel Elyar & Laura Jeppesen, quinte
Phoebe Carrai, Matt Zucker & Keiran Campbell, basse
Nathaniel Chase, contrebasse
Gonzalo X. Ruiz & Kathryn Montoya, oboe & recorder
Dominic Teresi & Allen Hamrick, bassoon
Michelle Humphreys, percussion
Michael Sponseller, harpsichord
Paul O’Dette, Stephen Stubbs & Charles Weaver, theorbo & Baroque guitar
David Morris, viola da gamba


Gilbert Blin, Founder & Director
Jason McStoots, Associate Director, 2023
Jeffrey Grossman, Musical Director, 2023

Mara Yaffee, Alissa Magee, Kristine Caswelch, Richard Pittsinger, Jason Rober, Peter Schoellkopff, singers


Kathleen Fay, Executive Producer
Maria van Kalken, Assistant to the Executive Producer

Mercedes Roman-Manson, Production Manager
Carmen Catherine Alfaro, Production Stage Manager
Perry Emerson, Operations Manager
Elizabeth Hardy, Production & Company Assistant

Gordon Manson, Technical Director
Maxx Finn, Master Electrician

Mark Zappone, Costume Supervisor
Jackie Oliva, Wardrobe Supervisor
Seth Bodie, Wig & Make-up Designer/Supervisor

Pierre-François Dollé impersonates sleeping Ulisse (Kathy Wittman photo)

Ian Thorsell, Props Artisan

Dani Zanuttini-Frank, Assistant to the Musical Directors
Lydia Becker, Assistant to the Orchestra Director
Ryan Cheng, Assistant to the Opera Director
Luke Blackburn, Company Co-Manager
Miguel Petris, Company Co-Manager

Kevin Lloyd, Assistant to the Costume Supervisor
Shannon Clarke, Assistant Lighting Designer
Aspen Davis, 1st Assistant Stage Manager
Kay Coughlin, 2nd Assistant Stage Manager
Elizabeth Tippens, Production Assistant

Elizabeth Cole Sheehan, Costume Shop Coordinator
Roland Guidry, Theresa Gautreaux, Lindsay Hoisington, Elsa Ramsey, Rebecca Butler, Kay Bardwell, Carley Wilcox, Stitchers

Ricardo Roman, Stage Supervisor
Wesley Scanlon, Stage Ops/Props

Ellen Hargis, Supertitle Creator
Dan McGaha, Supertitle Supervisor

*Debt to Wikipedia acknowledged
Greene’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Composers. Doubleday and Company.
Clément, Félix; Larousse, Pierre (1881). Dictionnaire des Opéras (in French). Paris.
Taruskin, Richard. Music in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.
Sadle, Stanley. New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Grove’s Dictionaries of Music.
Sadle, Stanley. Oxford Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Oxford.
Circé, Tragédie en musique representée par L’Academie Royalle de Musique (in French).
Amsterdam: Antoine Schelte. 1695. Retrieved 9 November 2022.
Anthony, James R. French Baroque Music from Rameau to Beaujoyeulx.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. A good review, a fair analysis of the performance. More later. Off to a concert of BEMF.

    Comment by Bettina A Norton — June 5, 2023 at 7:18 pm

  2. Readers may wonder at the abundance of detail about this opera production by BEMF, but one has to admit, it is an accurate reflection of the production itself. It is OVER the top musically: singers, orchestra, and dancers, as we are accustomed to expect with BEMF, but also a multitude of outstanding, visually stunning and imaginative costumes that should make the Met jealous. Confession: I am on BEMF’s board, but this performance should not be missed. Bravo to Lee for getting it up so quickly, albeit perhaps with superfluity of info.

    Comment by Bettina A, — June 6, 2023 at 8:33 am

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