Boston Early Music Festival’s Charpentier double-bill makes memorable evening at Rockport Festival

June 18, 2013 at 1:31 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Boston Early Music Festival presented a Charpentier double-bill Monday at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. Photo: Andre Costantini

For the first time in its 32-year history, opera has graced the stage of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. The Boston Early Music Festival presented two little-known delicacies by Marc-Antoine Charpentier Monday night at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in performances that will likely linger in the memory for years to come.

The composer (1643-1704) worked in the shadow of Jean-Baptiste Lully, whose operas enjoyed special privilege in Louis XIV’s France. But even in that time, Charpentier’s own stage works presented the biggest challenge to the older master’s monopoly.

On the surface, there’s no connection between Charpentier’s La Couronne de Fleurs (1685) and Les Descente d’Orphèe aux Enfers (1686). The former, a piece of political theatre based on a text by Molière, celebrates the triumphs of France’s larger-than-life king by way of a poetry contest between groups of shepherds. Whoever sings most eloquently about the king, the goddess Flore says in the story, will be rewarded with a crown of flowers. The latter work, which Charpentier left unfinished, tells the familiar tragedy of Orpheus’s journey to rescue his beloved Euridice from the grips of Pluton, lord of the underworld.

Combining the two pieces may seem an awkward fit at first glance, but Gilbert Blin’s production elegantly brought them together, sandwiching the Orpheus story between the two parts of La Couronne. As a result, Les Descente reads as another, more spectacular entry in the poetry contest where King Louis is seemingly recast as Orphèe on an ill-fated quest.

The combination isn’t entirely seamless. For example, the King’s deeds, one shepherdess proclaims in La Couronne, are greater than those of any ancient hero. The Louis-as-Orphèe reading, in effect, makes for a slightly awkward juxtaposition.

Rough edges elsewhere, though, were smoothed out. Les Descente ends with Orphèe leading Euridice out of the underworld. The audience never learns the fate of the two lovers, and Blin’s production doesn’t read anything into what Charpentier may have intended. Instead, in a humorous and clever twist, a grey-wigged Lully (played by Ryan Began), supporting himself with a walking stick, limps onstage to halt to the performance. In the ensuing conclusion, a return to La Couronne, the god Pan calls an end to the poetry contest, claiming that Louis is too great a subject to capture in song. Flore declares no single winner to the contest but rewards each singer with a flower from the crown for their efforts.

Kudos to the cast for their uniformly graceful singing in this production. Soprano Mireille Asselin’s nimble voice well suited the goddess Flore. Elegant, supple singing flowed from the solos and choruses of the accompanying shepherds (Jason McStoots, Michael Kelly, Jesse Blumberg, Olivier Laquerre, and Aaron Sheehan) and shepherdesses (Carrie Henneman Shaw, Lydia Brotherton, Thea Lobo, and Megan Stapleton). Brotherton and Shaw joined for an especially bubbly closing duet.

Both works, in fact, offer fluffy, charming vocal lines and choruses. But Les Descente contained the most colorful singing of the evening, no doubt due to Charpentier’s exquisite music, which displays the wider emotional range; light chromatic inflections bring hints of color and darkness to the score.

In the first act chorus, Juste sujet de pleurs, nymphs and shepherds recall the pain of separation between Orphèe and Euridice. The nimble and dance-like orchestral writing sparkled with the playing from a chamber ensemble of strings, winds (recorders and oboes), and continuo led by lutenist Stephen Stubbs. Three violas da gamba added weight and depth to the orchestra for the second act, depicting, to good effect, the underworld.

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