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A Trio of Sun King Radiances

New York
The Morgan Library and Museum
11/28/2016 -  & November 29, 2016
Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF) Chamber Opera Series: Versailles, “Portrait of a Royal Domain”:
Marc-Antoine Charpentier: Les Plaisirs de Versailles
Jean-Baptiste Lully: Atys (Two scenes)
Michel Richard de Lalande: Les Fontaines de Versailles

Boston Early Music Festival Vocal Ensemble: Mireille Asselin (La Musique), Jesse Blumberg (Comus), Olivier Laquerre (Le Dieu de Canal), Mireille Lebel (La Conversation), Jason McStoots (Le Jeu), Oliver Mercer (Bacchus), Sophie Michaux (Cérès), Molly Netter (Flore), Aaron Sheehan (Un des Plaisirs), Margot Rood (La Renommée), John Taylor Ward (Encelade), Virginia Warnken (Latone), Carlos Fittante (Louis XIV)
BEMF Chamber Ensemble, Paul O’Dette Stephen Stubbs (Musical Directors), Robert Mealy (ConcertMaster)
BEMF Dance Company, Gilbert Blin (Stage Director), Carlos Fittane (Choreographer), Anna Watkins (Costume Designer), Melinda Sullvan (Dance Director)

Music co-directors P. O’Dette, S. Stubbs
(© Kathy Wittman-Ball Square Films/Courtesy of the Artist)

For years I’ve wanted to see the famed Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF) in its native habitat, yet the gods always frowned on my longing. Finally, though, the BEMF have come to New York with performances from three stage works written for the greatest musical impresario in history, His Most Royal Majesty, Louis XIV. And thanks to some salubrious finagling by the BEMF, we were treated to a spectacle within a spectacle.

A quick explanation. Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s 1682 Les Plaisirs de Versailles may never have been performed, Lully’s Atys was performed in full several years before, and Michel Richard de Lalande’s Les Fontaines de Versailles was possibly staged outdoors in Versailles amongst the statuary, in 1683.

So how did this esteemed Boston ensemble put them together? The double-story starts during Charpentier’s opening quasi-farce, where the Sun-King himself enters in a wheelchair–and the cast of Charpentier decides to honor him with a few scenes from his favorite opera, Lully’s Atys.

Now, during one of the scenes, when Lully’s characters choose to sing a tempestuous chorus, the King falls asleep...and he is wooed with a lovely choral lullaby. (The scene also has a malade de clef when one character stabs his foot with a long stick, a reference to Lully’s own death.)

After an intermission, the complete Lalande masque is performed. In the middle, Louis XIV not only wakes up but he joins the troupe, leading the dancing, twirling around the cast, as the real hammy Louis would certainly have done.

In other words, Louis XIV has the last word (or the last feet!) in all three operas written in his honor. A delightful twist by BEMF.

So now we come to the operas themselves. With a personal confession that concert– or recorded versions of French Baroque are, for me, the apotheosis of boredom. After all, the French Palace never really liked opera. They adored–or were commanded to adore–dancing. And watching these three performances with a profusion of apparently authentic 17th Century French dances which I am too ignorant to name, the music, the stories, the characters, even the un-Charpentier-like farce came to like those too predicable arias, the less-than-titillating recitatives and the church-like chorales suddenly were vibrant.

How the Charpentier would sound without the staging, the cat-fight between Music and Conversation (an acrimonious treat by Mireille Asselin and Mireille Lebel), finally assuaged by treats of chocolate, wine and gambling, I wouldn’t like to imagine. But watching the Boston group in full French Versailles regalia, servants popping up serving candy and liquors, all dancing around the stage...ah, that had the satisfaction of early Baroque spectacle.

Was it actually performed in one of Louis XIV’s soirées d’appartements? If so, we missed the halls of mirrors, the flambeaux, the countless retainers and Ethiop slaves (well, no I wouldn’t miss them!). But Choreographer Carlos Fittante and stage director Gilbert Blin (wrote the resplendent program notes) made the dull wooden stage of the Morgan Library come to a vivacious movement.

That with the anonymous librettist of Les Plaisirs de Versailles, whose ripostes between the two ladies sound like a Don Rickles dialogue. So when the chorus tries to placate the two, and Comus (a towering Jesse Blumberg) gives them sweetmeats and drinks, and when Le Jeu (a pudgy humorous Jason McStoots) offers a gambling song worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan Patter...well, this was a grand opening.

It lacked the elaborate display of Versailles, but the music, all by period instruments, possessed the balletic movement which Louis would have loved.

The Lully interlude had two purposes. First, to show off the master-musician of the era, Lully, and a lullaby of gorgeous sounds. And second, to offer Louis himself falling asleep, just in time for the intermission.

That gave time for Lalande’s masque of Versailles statuary–and it might well have taken place in the Versailles garden, where Louis’ beloved carvings came to life.

Admittedly, Lalande’s music and Antoine Morel’s libretto were inferior to that of Charpentier (and certainly Lully). Each set piece seemed to be in the same key, and little was truly memorable here, save the choruses. (I had previously only heard the composer’s grand motets.)

As for the story, there was none: only an adulation for Louis XIV himself. I had heard the same story, almost word for word in an opera staged in Pyonyang. Simply substitute the name “Kim Il-sung” for “Louis” or “Sun”, and we had a North Korean opera. Radiance, goodness, happiness, a Volcano God turned into a salubrious water-jet God, and we had Les Fontaines de Versailles.

The surprise was Louis XIV himself, first dozing in his wheelchair, and then awakened–no, resurrected–into a dancing fury. Choreographer Carlos Fittante seemed to perform every dance of the French Empire, either solo or with partners. His was the grace, the elegance, the fancy footwork. Take away Nureyev’s sensuality and danger, replace it with coloratura digital embellishments, with harmony, with light-footed ingenuity, and one had the spirit of the opera.

Rather the spirit of the trio of operas. If Versailles itself was only a memory of grandeur past, the singers, dancers and the spirit of the Golden Age was ever-present. The final line of the opera bade the populace, in honor of Louis, to “rise as high as possible into the air”. Soaring not being amongst my talents, I had no choice but to walk two miles to my home. The chilly air, the silence of New York en point with the Boston ensemble’s quiet passion and most regal notes.

Harry Rolnick



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