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Playthings of the Gods

New York
Brooklyn Academy of Music, Harvey Lichtenstein Theater
03/18/2010 -  & March 20, 21*
Marc-Antoine Charpentier: Actéon
Henry Purcell: Dido and Aeneas

Emmanuelle de Negri (Aréthuze, Belinda), Katherine Watson (Diane, Second Woman), Ana Quintans (Daphné, Second Witch), Céline Ricci (Hyale, First Witch), Ed Lyon (Actéon, Spirit), Hilary Summers (Junon, Sorceress), Sonya Yoncheva (Dido), Andreas Wolf (Aeneas), Damian Whiteley (Sailor)
Les Arts Florissants, William Christie (Conductor)
Vincent Boussard (Director), Chantal de la Coste Messelière (Costume Design), Gloria Montesinos (Lighting Design)

K. Watson (© Jack Vartoogian)

Les Arts Florissants is truly a wonder. Founded by William Christie in 1979, and taking its name from a work by the French 17th century composer, Charpentier, the group has transformed our understanding and our experience of 17th and early 18th century music. Christie has unearthed neglected treasures and staged them with authenticity (in instrumentation and performance practice) but also with a marvelous sense of theater. Both works in this double bill seen last night, as part of this inaugural season of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Opera Festival, were presented with style, wit, grace and tremendous verve. The set was simple but it was simply elegant. The audience was captivated, and there is much more to come.

The intimate Harvey Lichtenstein Theater at BAM is an ideal space for Baroque musical performance. Built in 1904, the theater was abandoned for twenty years prior to its renovation in the late 1980s. The renovation has preserved an air of decay and faded grandeur. The theater was thus a fitting setting for these mythological beings who almost seemed to inhabit a Roman ruin. As Actéon began, both the pulsating energy of the music and the intimacy of the setting were emphasized by the entrance of the hunters through the auditorium. Calling to one another to make haste in an ebullient chorus, rushing hither and yon, they brought the theater alive and drew the audience in with the excitement of the chase. Although not using formal ballet sequences, the entire piece was beautifully choreographed, with almost constant movement driven by the music. The set was extremely simple, with only a large mirrored panel relieving an otherwise bare stage.

When Actéon enters, tired from the hunt, he sends his companions on without him, leaving him alone to doze near a pool of water. As he sleeps, Diane, goddess of the hunt, and her nymphs arrive, and engage in a sensuous and elegant bathing ritual. Actéon wakes and catches sight of the bathing goddess, unwittingly sealing his doom. Despite his entreaties, she turns him into a stag, and he is pursued and torn apart by his own hounds. When his hunters boisterously return to wake him, dragging the dead stag that is in reality his corpse, Junon, the deposed queen of the gods, appears to reveal the truth.

The entire cast sang and moved with grace, polish and energy. Katherine Watson, as Diane, sang with a lovely lyricism and Ed Lyons gave a virtuoso performance as a man, then a beast. He sang with a pleasing, light tenor voice and fine legato line. Hilary Summers as Junon gave a chilling delivery of the grisly tale, with an expressive and rich contralto, completing the fall of this piece from simple high spirits to horror and sorrow.

S. Yoncheva & A. Wolf (© Ken Howard)

For the second part of the evening, a large pink paper rose blossom was suspended above the same bare and mirrored stage. A darker tone was evident at once from the slight but grating dissonance with which the graceful overture begins. Dido, Queen of Carthage, is in a torment -- feeling herself falling in love with Aeneas, a refugee warrior from fallen Troy. As the gods have destined him to go to Italy and found Rome, Dido fears that any such love will be doomed. Her sister Belinda assures her that her love is returned and soon helps her overcome her misgivings. Shortly after Aeneas’s entrance, they fall into each other’s arms. The local sorceress and her witches, envious of all happiness, plot to destroy this newfound love. The sorceress summons a spirit to remind Aeneas that his destiny is the will of the gods, forcing him to abandon Dido whereupon she dies of grief.

Despite their quite different story arcs, several threads tied the two halves of the evening together. In addition to the shared set, the two pieces also largely shared the same costumes. Just a few details were changed -- different bodices on the women, brighter cummerbunds on the men. The sorceress who delights in causing others pain is the same Junon who took such delight in the gruesome fate of Actéon, and the spirit she conjures to do her dirty work appears to be Actéon himself. As the chorus sings “So fair the game, so rich the sport, Diana's self might to these woods resort,” the spirit infiltrates their ranks, and mocks their joyful singing with comic effect. But as the tale of Actéon is told again, said to have occurred on that very spot, we see him seized, transformed and killed again. This interweaving of characters serves to emphasize what is perhaps the common theme of the two pieces, the helplessness of mere mortals before cruel destiny and the forces of the supernatural.

In keeping with the Baroque musical tradition of emphasizing the text above the music, the soloists and chorus performed with a clarity of diction that rendered nearly every word understandable. Even the intricate melismas used to paint such words as flowing, storm, and languish did not obscure them. The chorus added several comic touches throughout the performance, seeming to absorb and reflect the emotion of those around them. This was especially effective when the chorus was subverted by the delightfully wicked plotting of the witches. The exaggeratedly nasal quality of the singing of both witches and chorus in this scene created an unsettling foreboding as the unfolding love story veered suddenly toward its tragic resolution.

Emmanuelle de Negri was a noble and compassionate Belinda, singing with a full warm tone. She provided the counterpoint to the sorceress, attempting always to propel the main characters toward love and happiness. Andreas Wolf as Aeneas sang with a rich and lyrical bass-baritone. He convincingly portrayed the warrior’s conflict between duty and passion, and his anguished despair at his parting from Dido.

The true standout of the evening, however, was Sonya Yoncheva’s Dido. The young Bulgarian soprano showed an exquisite sensitivity to both text and melodic line. From her entrance she sang with a pure and radiant voice with a secure, luminous top. Her rendition of Dido’s Lament, “When I am laid in Earth,” was simply ravishing. The ground bass that threads through this piece seemed to propel it to its conclusion, leaving Dido no hope and no escape from fate. Dissonance returned to the strings in the orchestra, vying briefly with the beauty of the vocal line. As Dido sweetly relinquished her hold on life, her companions were heartbroken. As were we.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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