Surely one of the great joys of being a music-lover in the present day is our rediscovery of French Baroque opera—not to mention the Italian and German masterpieces with which the Boston Early Music Festival has regaled its audiences over three decades. The amazing resurrection of Les Arts Florissants' legendary 1985 production of Lully's Atys this year brought that home. (They are now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.) BEMF had produced Rameau's Zoroastre in 1983. After that 18 years passed until they returned to French opera in their 2001 production of Lully's Thésée, followed by Psyché in 2007. While these four represent the most public strain of opera in Paris, the grand spectacles produced either under royal patronage or at the Opéra, BEMF's chamber opera series has provided a window on the smaller-scale, more private sort of performances cultivated by Marie de Lorraine, the Duchesse de Guise, with music by her house composer, Marc-Antoine Charpentier.
Les Arts Florissants
The Brooklyn Academy of Music, chose to open their 150th anniversary celebrations with a more recent, but no less historically significant commemoration, and typical of the innovative, constantly exciting work BAM has been doing since the 1960s. This was nothing less than a “recreation,” as the program calls it, of Jean-Marie Villégier’s watershed production of Lully’s Atys, with music by Les Arts Florissants, conducted by William Christie. This production, organized by the Paris Opera to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Lully’s death, went through 70 performances between its premiere in December 1986 in Prato, and its second revival in 1992, closing finally at BAM after its second run there.
Tully Scope has so far included a vast range of different kinds of music considered of especially vital interest today. On Saturday evening William Christie, the ebullient adoptive Frenchman from Buffalo and Les Arts Florissants introduced historically-informed performance to the mix, as well as another element that has been missing so far: light entertainment. It was about time for some music that was primarily designed to amuse...but to entertain intelligently, of course, because, as light and amusing as Rameau's balletic-operatic entertainments were, the wit of his librettists' manipulation of classical literature and myth was subtle and enlightening.
The life and career of Henry Purcell (1659-1695), the colossal figure who dominates the history of English music, occurred at the chronological mid-point of the Baroque, a period whose leading and most distinguishing genre is opera. And yet, opera never took root as a native product in English cultural soil. For that it had to wait until Purcell’s distant successor, Benjamin Britten, appeared on the scene two hundred and fifty years later. Twenty years after Purcell’s death, Handel arrived with his succession of exotic opera singers: Italian divas and castrati who swooped in like birds of paradise warbling their outlandish roulades and then vanished. The taste for such entertainment lasted at the most 25 years. Meanwhile, Purcell wrote only one true opera, a tiny gem that was held to be the only crown jewel for centuries, the miniature Dido and Aeneas of 1689. (John Blow’s fine companion piece, Venus and Adonis of 1701, still has not established itself in the canon.) And it was written for a girls’ school run by a dancing master, or at least its first documented performance occurred in this context.