By Keith Powers
BOSTON — Every two years, Boston’s Back Bay gets polyglot. A Dutch conversation on one corner. Sharing updates in French about a new luthier on another. An argument about Baroque dance in German across the way.
Welcome to the Boston Early Music Festival, the biennial conference and overwhelming glut of performances that transform the city with a profoundly international feel. For these ten days, Boston’s description as the Athens of America actually rings true.
The centerpiece of the festival has always been its main-stage opera revival, and this year the BEMF team — directed musically by Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, with staging by Gilbert Blin — have revived André Campra’s Le Carnaval de Venise, which opened June 11 and runs through June 18.
First produced in Paris in 1699, this “opéra-ballet” follows a long line of successful BEMF productions. Previous stagings of Lully (Thésée, 2001; Psyché, 2007), Monteverdi (L’incoronazione di Poppea, 2009), and Charpentier (La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers, 2015) have been thrilling revivals exploring Baroque styles. Most productions have toured America and Europe, and five of the subsequent recordings have been nominated for Grammys.
To paint the picture broadly, Campra’s Le Carnaval de Venise occupies the musical space after Lully and before Rameau, during the reign of Louis XIV. The French were recovering from a long war with the Augsburg Alliance and trying hard to repair relations with Venice. These historic considerations serve as an undercurrent to the story; stylistically, this “opéra-ballet” is among the first stagings to integrate ballet, drama, and music, rather than to offer them as discrete entertainments.
The artistry flows seamlessly, with singers, dancers, and actors playing through Jean-François Regnard’s libretto and Campra’s score. The setting of Venice during winter carnival finds a quartet of lovers, some miffed, some hopeful, at the core of the story. In this production, carnival means chaos. Blin’s stages are almost always packed with revelers — gossiping, flirting, and scheming in asides behind the action. Even during the overture, the curtain flaps and rustles from behind with expectations of activity.
Dance, music, and theater provide the entertainment in equal measure. The score, in general, is straightforward, not drawing attention to itself. Concertmaster Robert Mealy conducted largely unison, string-based accompaniment, his instrumental forces sitting face-to-face at audience level, not in the pit. Their sound throughout was sturdy and engaged.
The quartet of lovers dominate the singing. Both Isabelle (soprano Amanda Forsythe) and Leonore (soprano Karina Gauvin) love Leandre (baritone Jesse Blumberg); when he chooses Isabelle over Leonore, Rodolphe (bass-baritone Douglas Williams) takes offense, angry that his own suit for Isabelle is rejected.
The love-and-revenge plot steps lightly over the action, which focuses on the carnival, and the intercession of a second opera — the Orfeo myth, sung in Italian — which the revelers decide to attend during the course of the festivities.
Supporting voices were equally strong. Mezzo–soprano Mireille Lebel sings as Minerva in Act 1, then returns as La Fortuna in subsequent scenes; tenor Aaron Sheehan also fills multiple roles, including a star turn as Orfeo in the Italian opera, as does baritone Christian Immler. All of the singers brought their early-music chops: clear, lyric lines, with understated vibrato.
Forsythe especially performed with facile expression; when she thinks Leandre has been killed and sings “Mes yeux, fermez-vous à jamais,” holding a bloody reveler’s mask, it marks one of the few simple, touching moments in the production. Gauvin, more of a forceful artist, partnered robustly with Williams in the revenge duet (“Que l’Amour dans nos coeurs se transforme en colère”), the orchestra vigorously supporting.
In spite of love and murderous revenge, most of Le Carnaval de Venise laughs its way along. “Orfeo” is treated as a glorious farce: Mealy conducts the orchestra through hyperbolic, overly emotive phrases, while bathetic singing with mock coloratura and foppish poses undercut the story.
Until the staging of “Orfeo” after Act 3, the set was a rather modest Venetian street/canal scene. Hades brought things to life, the stage transforming itself into a pit of the damned, the costumes red-and-orange cloaking, for the unfortunate shades in residence.
The choreography makes Le Carnaval de Venise special. Melinda Sullivan and Caroline Copeland recreate movement styles reflecting various hierarchies, from noble to comic. Some movement was restrained, with unforced elegance; other scenes — from the “Orfeo” interlude, or in the multiple commedia dell’arte entertainments during the carnival — were danced with abandon. A gavotte of the gondoliers in Act 3 — using oars as props — was by turns tasteful, complex, and acrobatic.
Some opening night foibles (hats that refused to stay on, badly over-applied make-up, “buildings” swaying in the background of the set) will easily be rectified. And it is carnival, so crowded sets and hectic visuals help recreate that atmosphere. The blocking was prodigiously planned, but characters still ran into each other and hindered sight-lines. Visual gags and behind-the-action intrigue need to be toned down. Too much was happening too often.
It is hard to imagine Le Carnaval de Venise having the same success in a recording as previous BEMF operas. A true blend of dance, music, and theater, to be appreciated as such, the work stages more like contemporary musical theater than contemporary opera.
With the vast musical, costume, choreographic, and staging resources that BEMF brings to such a production, Le Carnaval de Venise successfully creates its own kind of spectacle. It runs through June 18. For information and tickets, click here.
Keith Powers covers music for WBUR’s ARTery and for the GateHouse newspapers. Follow @PowersKeith; email to email@example.com