BOSTON — Overheard at the Boston Early Music Festival: “Where else can you see and hear something like this?”
Yes, that’s the heart of the matter. The festival, familiarly known as BEMF, offers a rare opportunity every two years to enjoy a weeklong feast of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music at various venues in a great American city. With its commitment to authentic styles and instruments, this premier North American early-music festival transports audiences back hundreds of years to a graceful, idealized past. BEMF can be an otherworldly experience, in the best sense.
Performances by the festival’s world-class ensembles are uniformly excellent, sometimes breathtaking. Like the sorceress title character of this year’s centerpiece opera, Circé, BEMF casts an irresistible spell.
The June 4-11 festival was the 22nd since its founding in 1980, though the 2021 event was held virtually due to the pandemic. This year marked BEMF’s much-anticipated return after four years to in-person performances.
“A Celebration of Women” was the theme this year, with the festival focusing for the first time on women composers and women as subjects in song and opera. In centuries past, of course, women composers were often denied the opportunities available to men, so the repertoire is limited. The American historian Joan Kelly, noting the oppression of women in 16th-century Europe, famously asked in 1977, “Did women have a Renaissance?”
Yet the festival and the international ensembles that perform during the event are known for diligent musical archaeology, unearthing forgotten or rarely performed gems of the past.
So it was that the 12-member vocal group Stile Antico featured works by women composers about whom we know very little, even their dates of birth or death. Among those featured was Maddalena Casulana (who flourished around 1566-1583), the first woman to have her compositions published under her own name. The program at Boston’s Emmanuel Church, “Breaking the Habit: Music for and by Renaissance Women,” spotlighted works by nuns Raffaella Aleotti (ca. 1570-after 1646) and Sulpitia Cesis (1577-after 1619), and other works suspected to be composed by women. Stile Antico, a British group, performed these short, affecting pieces and others (including Pierre de La Rue’s incomparable “Absalon, fili mi”) with a caressing beauty of tone.
Earlier that day, June 9, the seven-member, Prague-based Tiburtina Ensemble offered sacred chants of Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), also at Emmanuel Church. This is music of only a melodic line and no harmony, but Hildegard found great variety in monophony, composing works with difficult melismatic passages and considerable vocal range. The ensemble decided to add some musical accompaniment, with two of the group improvising minimally on the harp and zither (dulce melos), Old Testament instruments. Six women of the Tiburtina Ensemble expertly negotiated the complex melodic lines as if singing with one voice.
The Germany-based Hamburger Ratsmusik, meanwhile, devoted a program to Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677), a singer and lutenist who uniquely succeeded as a 17th-century Venetian composer in a male-dominated field. The ensemble offered sensitive accounts of Strozzi’s ornate and poignant vocal music.
Among the many other events this year, the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra combined with the Belgian vocal ensemble Vox Luminis on June 8 to perform Handel’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day and Bach’s Magnificat at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall. With a beautiful text by English poet John Dryden that celebrates the joy of musical creation, Handel’s Ode was as luminous as the translation of the ensemble’s name Vox Luminis: “voice of light.” Bach’s Magnificat, in keeping with the festival’s devotion to period style, was performed in the original and now-rarely heard key of E-flat and with recorders instead of flutes. This was probably only of interest, however, to the specialist. What the audience heard was a performance of marvelous clarity and artistry.
Another particular treat was the June 10 performance of the instrumental ensemble ACRONYM at Jordan Hall. This group plays with consummate skill and passion. The 12 members put their whole bodies into the works they perform, swaying to the music like any rock star or jazz performer. They played Baroque works by Francesco Cavalli, Arcangelo Corelli, Alessandro Scarlatti, and others. Especially pleasing was a lovely account of Johann Philipp Krieger’s Sonata à 4 in F Major, with its harmony reminiscent of Pachelbel’s Canon.
The two featured operas this year, originally scheduled for 2021, both centered on women as sorceresses, entrapping men who long for escape. One could view the title characters of Circé and Alcina as villains — perhaps inconsistent with the “Celebration of Women” theme — but they’re undeniably powerful heroines as well: women with magic wands and not afraid to use them. These women had agency.
Circé, the festival’s centerpiece opera by French Baroque composer Henry Desmarets, performed at Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, was magnificent — visually sumptuous and musically splendid. The libretto, based on Homer’s Odyssey, is by French poet Louise-Genevieve Gillot de Saintonge (1650-1718), the first woman to create a libretto for the Paris Opera. Saintonge’s Circé is a woman desperate to keep her beloved Ulisse on her island even as his affections wander and he plans his escape. Saintonge’s characters muse at great length on the joys and tortures of love.
The Boston festival is known for staging French Baroque opera in faithful period style. There’s no attempt to apply the modern gloss we often see in many opera houses in America and Europe. The festival’s veteran musical team — musical directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, and violinist Robert Mealy — ensured the highest performance standards. Gilbert Blin’s stage direction for Circé was wonderfully stylized, with singers moving gracefully across the stage, almost balletic in their gestures. Blin’s set design was reminiscent of a Rococo painting. Melinda Sullivan’s Baroque dances emerged trippingly and seamlessly from the action. Jérome Kaplan designed an enormous number of colorful, captivating costumes.
Karina Gauvin was a commanding and nuanced Circé. Aaron Sheehan brought a bright tenor to the role of Ulisse. Strong performances were contributed by Teresa Wakim, Amanda Forsythe, Jesse Blumberg, Douglas Williams, and many others. Some of Desmaret’s best moments are reserved for the chorus, and the ensemble sang the glittering harmonies with elegant tone and phrasing.
An example of the aforementioned festival’s musical archaeology, the four performances of Circé in Boston represented the opera’s North American premiere, almost 330 years after it was first staged in Paris in 1694.
Francesca Caccini’s 1625 opera Alcina, performed June 8 at Jordan Hall, was a revival of a 2018 BEMF production, brought back in this season celebrating women because it’s believed to be the first opera written by a woman and the first Italian opera to be performed outside Italy.
It’s a melodically engaging work, with two sorceresses (Alcina and Melissa) battling over the knight Ruggiero. Alcina herself is a terrifically bizarre character, seducing the men who arrive on her island and, once bored with them, turning them (and those who try to rescue them) into plants. The opera’s full title is a mouthful: La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’Isola d’Alcina (The Liberation of Ruggiero from the Island of Alcina).
With two strong female characters, Alcina certainly fit in well with the festival’s theme. This chamber opera was overseen by the same creative team as in Circé, guaranteeing polished artistic standards. Mireille Lebel negotiated the contrasting moods of Alcina with aplomb and expertise. Cecilia Duarte brought an opulent voice to the role of Melissa. Colin Balzer’s Ruggiero boasted a clarion tenor. The chorus delivered Caccini’s rich harmonies with great appeal.
Like many summer music festivals — Spoleto Festival USA comes to mind — BEMF has given birth to a fringe festival that offers several events in connection with the main performances.
There are accomplished student performances as well, suggesting that early music has a bright future.
The festival also hosts an exhibition featuring BEMF’s own award-winning CDs and sellers of harpsichords, violins, flutes, recorders and other period instruments.
Being in Boston, a global center of higher education, BEMF takes its educational role seriously. The festival includes seminars, discussions, and a hefty program book (costing a mere $15), full of interesting program notes and background information.
It’s hard to imagine how BEMF accomplishes so much with a seven-member permanent staff and on a budget of $4 million — a figure that includes BEMF’s year-round performances, not just the festival. But the festival succeeds thanks to seasonal staff and an army of volunteers.