Charpentier’s La Couronne de Fleurs and La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers by the Boston Early Music Society

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Aaron Sheehan, Orphée. with Musical Directors Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs. Photo André Costantini.

Aaron Sheehan, Orphée. with Musical Directors Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs. Photo André Costantini.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier Double Bill
La Descente d’Orphée aux enfers
La Couronne de fleurs

Saturday, November 26, 2011 at 8pm
Sunday, November 27, 2011 at 3pm
New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, Boston

Paul O’Dette & Stephen Stubbs, Musical Directors
Gilbert Blin, Stage Director
Anna Watkins, Costume Designer
Melinda Sullivan, Choreographer

Pre-concert talks an hour before the performances by John S. Powell, Professor of Music, The University of Tulsa.

BEMF Vocal Ensemble
Aaron Sheehan, Orphée
Mireille Asselin, Carrie Henneman Shaw, Michael Kelly,
Olivier Laquerre, Thea Lobo, Jason McStoots,
Megan Stapleton, Brenna Wells, Douglas Williams

BEMF Chamber Ensemble
Robert Mealy, concertmaster
Cynthia Roberts, violin
Laura Jeppesen, viola da gamba
Christel Thielmann, viola da gamba
Beiliang Zhu, viola da gamba
Gonzalo X. Ruiz, oboe & recorder
Kathryn Montoya, oboe & recorder
Avi Stein, harpsichord
Paul O’Dette, Baroque guitar and theorbo
Stephen Stubbs, Baroque guitar and theorbo

BEMF Dance Ensemble
Carlos Fittante, Olsi Gjeci, Caitlin Klinger, Alexis Silver

These performances were dedicated to the memory of Montserrat Figueras, who sadly passed away on November 23. Her resplendent voice, brilliant technique, and a charm all her own brought pleasure and enlightenment to lovers of early music for many years. This is a great loss for all of us. (—Ed.)

Boston Early Music Festival’s presentation of two Marc-Antoine Charpentier chamber operas took us from the playful, elegant, high baroque world of the court of Louis XIV, into something more serious and grave, and then back out again. First we were given most of La Couronne de Fleurs, a Pastoral probably not meant for full staging, where Flore, goddess of spring—well sung, and acted with spirit, by soprano Mireille Asselin—summons up the season and then proposes to shepherds and shepherdesses a contest to praise Louis XIV’s military triumphs, the winner to receive the crown of flowers of the title. After the conventional tributes are made, the production turns to the short opera La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers, presenting it as a further entry in the poetic contest, though this is done a bit awkwardly, since the piece does not refer to Louis. The Orpheus opera seems not to have been finished by Charpentier, having only two acts instead of the usual three, and stopping with the beginning of Orpheus’s ascent from the Underworld with his lover Euridice rescued from death. We do not get the familiar incident of his prohibited looking back at her and thus permanent loss of her. BEMF cleverly handled this truncated ending by coming back to the last part of La Couronne, where the god Pan interrupts the poetic/musical contest, putting a stop to it, saying nothing can come up to Louis’s exploits. La Couronne’s contest is truncated, just as Orphée itself seems to have been in real life truncated, for whatever reason. The god Pan appears in actual court dress here, not in pastoral costume, his entrance preceded by the brash loud sound of his footsteps. We are reminded of the scariness of Louis’s authoritarian court, with overtones of the power of favored composer Lully, who may in fact have stopped the composition of Charpentier’s Orphée. The opening pastoral contest has to do with war, and it seems only natural to go further, with the Orpheus material, into a more serious confrontation with death. The interruption as handled here—stopping both pieces at once—is chilling. One feels death stopping Orpheus, as well as a court official stopping operas. Flore decides to present crowns of flowers to everybody, though none is really deserving, and we conclude with dancing and an ode asking for a hundred more years of life for Louis—an absurd proposition. In the end we feel the dark undercurrents beneath the elegance and joy of Louis’s court.

[For more historical background, see Michael Miller’s preview of these performances.]

Mireille Asselin, Douglas Williams, and cast with the BEMF Chamber Ensemble and Musical Directors Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs. Photo André Costantini.

Mireille Asselin, Douglas Williams, and cast with the BEMF Chamber Ensemble and Musical Directors Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs. Photo André Costantini.

This production placed the small ensemble of instrumentalists center stage—strings, oboes, recorders, guitars, theorboes, harpsichord. They were surrounded with a ring of flowers, and at the end the singers and dancers faced them in a ring and paid tribute—appropriate to pieces written to extoll the powers of music and art, and appropriate for the fine, eloquent, full-of-feeling playing of these musicians under concertmaster Robert Mealy and led principally by co-music director Stephen Stubbs (guitar and theorbo). Charpentier’s music is very attractive, with variety in meter and sound and mood, and wonderful part-writing for vocal ensemble—all very finely balanced and sung by the BEMF group. The opening Pastoral with its contest of praise moves quickly, with lots of dancing, all beautifully staged by director Gilbert Blin and choreographer Melinda Sullivan, and with splendid costumes by Anna Watson. The first part of the Orpheus opera continues the mood of the Pastoral, with celebration of Orpheus’s wedding to Euridice. Soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw sang Euridice with a mellifluous bell-tone voice, though without great rhythmic bite and super-clear articulation. Upon Euridice’s death (from snake bite) the music becomes quite serious and moving, much more in the minor mode, and tenor Aaron Sheehan sang Orpheus with a strong attractive voice and was very affecting, now giving way to shock and grief, and later entreating in Hell for Euridice’s return. It was nice to see at the end of the act that a baroque dance can be sad and put across a sense of tragedy. Bass-baritone Olivier Laquerre was not really strong enough of voice to make a great impression as the god Apollo, Orpheus’s father, urging him to descend to the Underworld and make a plea for Euridice. But Douglas Williams, another bass-baritone drawn from the vocal ensemble, was grand and forbidding as the Underworld god Pluto, at first resisting but then giving in to Orpheus. Blin staged very well some byplay with the tortures of famous malefactors Tantalus, Ixion, and Tityus, and then the stand-off between Orpheus and Pluto. Sheehan sang the stages of the plea very effectively—much of it marvelously wrought by Charpentier in triple time, not what one would expect for such serious material. One fully felt the power of music, and with the ensuing interruption and coda, the fragility of its status and the scariness of its possible disappearance.

Mireille Asselin and cast. Photo André Costantini.

Mireille Asselin and cast. Photo André Costantini.

Charles Warren

About Charles Warren

Charles Warren studied literature and music formally and now teaches film history and analysis at Boston University and in the Harvard Extension School. He is the author of “T.S. Eliot on Shakespeare,” and edited and contributed to the volumes “Beyond Document: Essays on Nonfiction Film” and “Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Hail Mary:’ Women and the Sacred in Film.”

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