Opera Review: BEMF Hangs Out with the Sun King

The stellar BEMF team whips up a holiday confection that’s worth catching year after year.

Mireille Asselin (La Musique) in BEMF's presentation of Charpentier's "Les Plaisirs de Versailles." Photo: Kathy Wittman.

Mireille Asselin (La Musique) in BEMF’s presentation of Charpentier’s “Les Plaisirs de Versailles.” Photo: Kathy Wittman.

By Susan Miron

For some people, Thanksgiving is about turkey, pies, and family. For me, over the past seven years it’s been about attending Boston Early Music Festival’s operas. BEMF’s annual November opera reunion (started in 2008) brings together its far-flung gang of early music geniuses — Artistic Directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs leading the orchestra; Stage Director Gilbert Blin; Concertmaster Robert Mealy; Dance Director Melinda Sullivan; Costume Director Anna Watkins; Choreographer Carlos Fittante — and its renowned coterie of singers and instrumentalists. The stellar team whips up a holiday confection that’s worth catching year after year.

This time around, instead of one complete opera, BEMF presented two half-hour “operatic divertissements” — Charpentier’s Les plaisirs de Versailles and Michel-Robert de Lalande’s Les fontaines de Versailles, plus excerpts from Jean-Baptiste Lully’s opera Atys. The title for the program was Versailles: Portrait of a Royal Domain. None of these compositions were performed at the Palace of Versailles during the reign of King Louis XIV, but it made for an extraordinarily entertaining evening. The premise is that the audience is transported (in both senses) to Louis XIV’s playground, Versailles, in the early 1680s, and invited to attend one of the “Sun King”’s “Grands Appartements” for soirées held in the winter months, three days a week, from 6 to 10 p.m. In these gatherings there was a room for eating and drinking, a room for gaming and a room for music. There was enough entertainment for the fussiest of guests.

BEMF has had a tradition of mixing established singers from its troupe with upcoming stars (this year, Margot Rood and Sophie Michaux), but the orchestra maintains the same extraordinary personnel, and it is wonderful tradition. On her blog, BEMF violist Sarah Darling provides a terrific description of what it feels like to perform this music:

Playing the music for this show is unbelievably challenging, and you’d never know it from looking at the very simple notes on the page. It’s difficult because every single moment is full of je-ne-sais-quoi. A simple tune could be heartbreaking one second and slightly devious the next. The quality of articulation, the implications of bowing choices, the rhythm of the hard and soft, the supple and the springy, keeps your entire musical being fiendishly concentrated on the task (although, this being French music, it’s gotta look oh-so-casual and surprisingly delightful.) This play of meanings is perfectly married to, let’s say, the double entendre of that rarified court scene. And the gorgeousness that comes out of that level of detail is unreal. (But full – to overflowing – of a new kind of reality.)

The other instrumentalists — all remarkable virtuosos — included Robert Mealy, Cynthia Roberts, Laura Jeppesen, Phoebe Carrai, Gonzalo X. Ruiz, Kathryn Montoya, Marilyn Boenau, Michael Sponseller, Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubb. Fun, high spirits, and beautifully sung and played music abounded. The production was also a theatrical eyeful. BEMF vocalists, clad in gorgeous costumes and wigs, are also superb actors, moving with grace and agility.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704), composer of the first of the three divertissements on the program, never actually held a position at Louis XIV’s court. However, he has been a very popular composer for the BEMF November operas: La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers and La Couronne de Fleurs were performed in 2011, Actéon in 2008. His Plaisirs de Versailles features five characters: La Musique (Mireille Asselin), La Conversation (Mireille Lebel) and, as Un des Plaisirs, Comus, and Le Jeu (gambling), the beloved BEMF mens’ trio of Aaron Sheehan, Jason McStoots, and Jesse Blumberg. Louis XIV, who was transported onto the stage of Jordan Hall in a wheelchair, or “roulette,” was played by dancer Carlos Fittante. Those not cast in starring roles made up the choir in each divertissement.

In Plaisirs, La Musique (who later admits she just wanted to make Louis laugh) and La Conversation get into a funny tiff. The other Pleasures call upon Comus, the god of banquets, to settle things. He offers wine, cakes, and hot chocolate. The bickering goes on and on in this short and satirical comedy, a mischievousness engineered, it appears, simply to make Louis laugh. The two Mireilles — Asselin and Lebel — sung and acted wonderfully. Just watching and listening to the goings-on was pleasure enough. There was no real need to grasp the intricacies of the plot, which ends with the two figures agreeing to cooperate so they can help Louis relax after his military adventures.

A scene from the BEMF's presentation of Lalande's "Les Fontaines de Versailles." Photo: Kathy Wttman.

A scene from the BEMF’s presentation of Lalande’s “Les Fontaines de Versailles.” Photo: Kathy Wttman.

Jean-Baptiste Lully’s (1632-1687) two divertissements from Atys (libretto by Philippe Quinault 1635-1688) featured one of Baroque music’s famous sleep scenes. Ays was celebrated as “the king’s opera” because of King Louis XIV’s love for the piece. Tenor Aaron Sheehan as Sleep asks for a time for rest, and is echoed by longer invocations from Morpheus (tenor Jason McStoots), Phobetor (baritone John Taylor Ward), and Phantase (tenor Oliver Mercer). The king drifts off to sleep in his wheelchair and begins to dream.

Michel-Richard Lalande’s (1657-1726) Les Fontaines de Versailles, (libretto by Antoine Morel (1648?-1711) followed the intermission. In it, the palace’s famed fountains come to life at night and haunt the building’s slumbering inhabitants. Each fountain is dedicated to a classical deity — Latona (Virginia Warnken), Flore, the goddess of spring (Molly Netter), Apollo (Aaron Sheehan), Ce’rés, the goddess of the summer harvest (Sophie Michaux), Enceladus (John Taylor Ward), Bacchus, the god of wine (Oliver Mercer), Fame (Margot Rood), Comus, the god of banquets (Blumberg), and the god of the Canal (Laquerre). All of these divinities laud the Sun King for encouraging the return of spring. Midway through, Louis awakes and springs from his chair to lead the dancing. The statues return to their assigned places in the garden and commence to thrill the king with their famously magnificent fountains.

BEMF’S next concert is on Friday, December 9, when the group will present the immensely popular Tallis Scholars under the direction of Peter Philips at St. Paul’s Church in Cambridge, MA.

Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. She is part of the Celtic harp and storytelling duo A Bard’s Feast with renowned storyteller Norah Dooley and, until recently, played the Celtic harp at the Cancer Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital.

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