13 August 2023

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel — ORLANDO, HWV 31 (D. Moody, M. Quinn, S. Dietrich, A. Young Smucker, P. Walker; Staunton Music Festival, 11 August 2023)

IN REVIEW: detail of Georg Friedrich Händel's conducting score of ORLANDO, HWV 31 [Image © by Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg Carl von Ossietzky]GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Orlando, HWV 31Daniel Moody (Orlando), Molly Quinn (Angelica), Sheila Dietrich (Dorinda), Angela Young Smucker (Medoro), Peter Walker (Zoroastro); Staunton Music Festival Baroque Orchestra; Carsten Schmidt, conductor [Timothy Nelson, stage director; Emily Becher-McKeever, lighting designer; Maria Bissex, costume designer; Staunton Music Festival, Trinity Episcopal Church, Staunton, Virginia, USA; Friday, 11 August 2023]

As their careers progressed, prominent singers in the first half of the Eighteenth Century must have come to know the characters who populate Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando furioso, first published in fragmentary form in 1516, as well as they knew people with whom they interacted in their daily lives. So prevalent were operatic adaptations of Ariosto’s work that episodes like Orlando’s madness became fodder for parody, the excesses of composers’ depictions of the epic’s dramatic situations drawing derision as the Baroque era waned. Nevertheless, the appeal of Ariosto’s verses was so strong in the 1730s that they were the source for three of Georg Friedrich Händel’s operas for the London stage: Orlando, Ariodante, and Alcina. Appearing in rapid succession in 1735, the second and third of these were more successful than the first, which, following its inaugural production, was not revived until the Twentieth Century. Now regarded as one of Händel’s most original and stageworthy operas, Orlando accounts for much of today’s audiences’ acquaintance with Ariosto’s poem, the themes of which are thoughtfully expounded in Händel’s tautly-constructed score.

The cast assembled for the first performance of Orlando included five of the most renowned singers of the period, all of whom frequently collaborated with Händel. With the castrato Senesino in the title rôle, sopranos Anna Maria Strada del Pò and Celeste Gismondi as Angelica, the queen of Cathay, and the shepherdess Dorinda, contralto Francesca Bertolli as the Moorish prince Medoro, and bass Antonio Montagnana as the sorcerer Zoroastro, Händel would have been justified in expecting Orlando to be awarded a rapturous reception, but, despite a respectable tally of performances in its initial run, appreciation for the work was modest. Complex plots like Orlando’s were typical of Baroque opera and, if contemporary assessments by journalists and diarists can be believed, were accepted by Londoners with little complaint. Were the psychological nuances of these characters and their interactions the bricks in the wall that arose between Orlando and Händel’s patrons?

Bridging the chasms of time and sensibilities separating Twenty-First-Century theatergoers from Orlando’s marvels was a discernible goal and a notable achievement of Staunton Music Festival’s semi-staged prroduction of the opera. Presenting a work with theatrical effects as extravagant as those expected by audiences at the time of Orlando’s 1733 première at London’s King’s Theatre challenges any company, but performing Orlando in a space like Staunton’s Trinity Episcopal Church, the venue for SMF’s performance, begets obstacles that would have confounded even Händel’s storied creative shrewdness. Capitalizing on imaginative but wholly practical lighting designs by Emily Becher-McKeever, evocative artwork by violinist Ingrid Matthews, and straightforward costume designs by Maria Bissex that facilitated identification of each character, stage director Timothy Nelson conjured Orlando’s peculiar atmosphere with cleverness that minimized the venue’s disadvantages. The opera’s supernatural effects were handled with economy, but it was Nelson’s attention to the interplay among the characters that engendered the performances’s most memorable dramatic moments.

Nelson’s emphasis on the relationships that propel Orlando’s diegesis was mirrored by SMF Baroque Orchestra’s and conductor Carsten Schmidt’s focus on the intricate orchestral writing that contributes indelibly to the opera’s effectiveness. Schmidt both supported the singers and respected Händel’s directions by setting tempi that allowed textual and musical phrases to progress organically. Regrettably, adherence to Händel’s score was otherwise marred by numerous cuts and omission of the B sections and repeats of most of the opera’s da capo arias. [Orlando lost the accompagnato ‘Itene pur tremando, anime vili’ in Act One. Angelica was deprived of the Act One arias ‘Chi possessore è del mio core’ and ‘Se fede vuoi, ch'io ti creda’ and her aria ‘Non potrà dirmi ingrata’ in Act Two. Also absent from Act Two were Dorinda’s aria ‘Se mi rivolgo al prato’ and Medoro’s aria ‘Verdi allori sempre unito.’] The cast’s verbal intelligibility in recitatives, imperiled by the church’s acoustic, was substantially aided by lutenist and theorbist Paul Holmes Morton’s and harpsichordist Gabe Shuford’s deft handling of the continuo. Händel’s writing for wind instruments in Orlando is inventive, often recalling the operas of Campra and Montéclair, and SMF’s musicians performed their parts marvelously. In truth, there was no member of the orchestra whose playing deviated from the high standard established and sustained by Schmidt.

IN REVIEW: the interior of Trinity Episcopal Church (Staunton, Virginia), venue for Staunton Music Festival's performance of Georg Friedrich Händel's ORLANDO, 11 August 2023 [Photograph © by Joseph Newsome, Voix des Arts]Opera in chiesa: the interior of Trinity Episcopal Church (Staunton, Virginia), the venue for Staunton Music Festival’s performance of Georg Friedrich Händel’s Orlando, 11 August 2023
[Photograph © by Joseph Newsome, Voix des Arts]

In order to avoid the type of overwrought caricature that spurred the satirical spoofing of Baroque opera, the strategizing sorcerer Zoroastro—Orlando’s protector of true love and purveyor of reason—must be portrayed with ethical rectitude and vocal authority. From his first accompagnato in Act One, ‘Geroglifici eterni,’ powerfully declaimed, bass Peter Walker lent Zoroastro’s manipulation of the opera’s plot dramatic credibility and musical exhilaration. Entreating Orlando to abandon his amorous pursuits and resume his quest for martial glory, Walker’s Zoroastro voiced the aria ‘Lascia Amor, e segui Marte!’ commandingly, the divisions dispatched with ease. Zoroastro’s aria in Act Two, ‘Tra caligini profonde,’ was also sung with galvanizing bravado. The gravitas with which Walker declaimed the accompagnato ‘Impari ognun da Orlando’ in Act Three imparted the danger posed by Orlando’s psychological instability, and his thrilling account of the aria ‘Sorge infausta una procella’ palpitated with dramatic tension. Guiding the opera to its peaceful resolution, this Zoroastro’s noble singing of the accompagnato ’Tu che del gran tonante’ revealed the depth of his concern for Orlando. A few of Walker’s lowest notes disappeared into the sonic quagmire of the church sanctuary, but the voice’s burnished timbre and the singer’s skillful management of it were always audible.

Portraying the young prince Medoro, found injured in battle and nursed back to health by Angelica whilst concealed in Dorinda’s abode, mezzo-soprano Angela Young Smucker was more adversely affected than her colleagues by the over-resonant acoustic, yet the voice was projected with indomitable resourcefulness. Following Angelica into the fracas of Act One, his ‘E il mio cor da me diviso’ expanding her arioso into a duetto, Young Smucker’s Medoro was an eager but considerate paramour. The mezzo-soprano sang the aria ‘Se il cor mai ti dirà’ excitingly, her strong lower register reminding the audience of the character’s machismo, and ‘Consolati, o bella’ in the terzetto with Angelica and Dorinda was voiced with sincerity and glowing tone. The excision of Medoro’s aria in Act Two was unfortunate, but the prince’s words was uttered with significance. Young Smucker’s best singing of the evening was reserved for the aria ‘Vorrei poterti amar’ in Act Three, each note of which was produced with feeling and stylistic acumen. In this performance, Medoro’s reconciliation with Orlando was uncommonly sincere, Young Smucker having tempered the young Moor’s impulsiveness with inviolable integrity.

Surviving assessments of her singing by well-informed Eighteenth-Century operaphiles suggest that the epithet by which Händel’s first Dorinda was known, La Celestina, was appropriate. Her no-less-heavenly successor in the rôle, soprano Sheila Dietrich, enlivened SMF’s Orlando with a captivating, splendidly-sung characterization of Dorinda. In Act One, Dietrich voiced the accompagnato ‘Quanto diletto avea tra questi boschi’ with boundless charm, and, throughout the performance, the uncontrived lightness of her deportment differentiated the unpretentious Dorinda from the grander Angelica. The arias ‘Ho un certo rossore’ and ‘O care parolette, o dolci sguardi’ were sung with technical assurance and tonal shading that conveyed the shepherdess’s emotional transitions. Reacting to Angelica and Medoro, ‘Non so consolarmi’ in the terzetto divulged Dorinda’s dismay.

Dietrich’s voicing of the arioso ‘Quando spieghi i tuoi tormenti’ at the start of Act Two was sublime, exhibiting the theatrical genius that distinguishes Händel’s best operas. ‘Ed innestar tu vuoi’ in the duetto with Orlando in Act Three was delivered with urgency, but it was Dietrich’s singing of the rollicking aria ‘Amor è qual vento,’ its cadenza capped with a radiant interpolated top C♯, that won the performance’s most enthusiastic ovation. In the opera’s final scene, Dorinda’s joy and relief were palpable. Dietrich’s argent timbre was sporadically covered by the orchestra, but her avoidance of forcing tones allowed her voice to gleam untarnished.

The tonal purity and quick vibrato of soprano Molly Quinn’s voice arrayed Angelica’s music in aptly aristocratic colors and textures, the delicate subtlety of her interpretation of text not precluding fierce outbursts of temper. ‘Ritornava al suo bel viso’ in the Act One duetto with Medoro was sung with enchanting limpidity of line, the emotions as clear as the words, and ‘Consolati, o bella’ in the terzetto allied tender yearning with unnerving uncertainty, communicated by vocalism of unerring eloquence. Quinn’s time-halting performance of the hauntingly beautiful aria ‘Verdi piante, erbette liete’ in Act Two movingly evinced the inherent longing for tranquility that motivates Angelica. Bringing perceptible insight to Angelica’s dramatic development in Act Three, the soprano phrased the aria ‘Così giusta è questa speme’ with insurmountable assurance. In the duetto with Orlando, she articulated ‘Finché prendi ancora il sangue’ vividly. Likely falling victim to the unfavorable soundscape, Quinn’s intonation was fleetingly imprecise, but no momentary lapses in confidence undermined the prevailing poise of her performance.

The rôles written by Händel for Senesino pose a number of problems to modern singers of any gender. Most troublesome for some countertenor exponents of parts like Orlando are the strength and agility at the bottom of the range required by the music. One of the most noteworthy aspects of countertenor Daniel Moody’s performance as Orlando for SMF was the evenness of his voice across tbe part’s full range, no weakness compromising the lowest reaches of the compass. The ethereal sheen of his timbre immediately intimated an aura of mental vulnerability in the arioso ‘Stimolato dalla gloria’ in Act One. The accompagnato ‘Immagini funeste’ was acted as scintillatingly as it was sung, and ‘Non fu già men forte Alcide’ received a performance of engrossing theatricality. The famed aria ‘Fammi combattere’—its da capo observed, permitting Moody to venture demanding but tasteful ornamentation—was rightly a bravura tour de force, the fiorature sung with verve and virility. In the opera’s second act, the aria ‘Cielo! Se tu il consenti’ was voiced with élan, the words sensitively enunciated, and desolation echoed in ‘Dove, dove guidate, o Furie.’

The depiction of Orlando’s descent into madness that ends Act Two—and closed the first half of SMF’s two-part arrangement of the opera—is one of Händel’s most unique scenes, and Moody’s performance realized the music’s full expressive potential. Voicing the accompagnato ‘Ah stigie larve! Ah scellerati spettri’ with vehemence, his navigation of the alternating recitative and repetitions of ‘Vaghe pupille, non piangete, no’ manifesting the wanderings of Orlando’s mind with graphic realism. The warrior’s delirium persisted in Act Three, ‘Unisca amor in noi’ in the duetto with Dorinda and the aria ‘Già lo stringo, già l’abbraccio’ voiced with abandon. In the duetto with Angelica, Moody uttered ‘Sol ha sete di sangue il mio cor’ with anguished confusion.

Disbelief and self-recrimination surfaced in the accompagnato ‘Già per la man d’Orlando,’ and the magnificent aria ‘Già l'ebbro mio ciglio’ was sung with stunningly beautiful tone and touching introspection. ‘Per far, mia diletta’ and ‘Vinse incanti, battaglie, e fieri mostri’ traced the course of Orlando’s return to sanity, their texts accented with gradual awareness of the events that had transpired. Launching the opera’s closing ensemble, Moody sang ‘Trionfa oggi ’l mio cor’ jubilantly. Though the truncation of Hândel’s score was lamentable, Moody and his colleagues demonstrated that Orlando’s musical sophistication and dramatic cohesiveness rely not upon lavish staging but upon the earnest efforts of gifted singers and musicians who understand, respect, and dedicate themselves to serving the music.

11 August 2023

RECORDING REVIEW: Brenda Portman, Marianne Kim, Tom Trenney, & Dan Locklair — PSALM-SONATA & SUITES (David von Behren, organ; David von Behren Music)

RECORDING REVIEW: B. Portman, M. Kim, T. Trenney, D. Locklair - PSALM-SONATA & SUITES (David von Behren, organ; David von Behren Music 2023)BRENDA PORTMAN (born 1980), MARIANNE KIM (born 1972), TOM TRENNEY (born 1977), and DAN LOCKLAIR (born 1949): Psalm-Sonata & SuitesDr. David von Behren, organ [Recorded in First-Plymouth Church, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA, in July 2023; 1 CD, 39:43; David von Behren Music; Available from Amazon Music, Apple Music, Spotify, and YouTube Music]

By the start of his half-century tenure as organist at Virginia’s Bruton Parish in 1755, Peter Pelham was one of Colonial America’s most esteemed citizens, having already attained notoriety as both a pedagogue in Charleston, South Carolina, and principal organist at Boston’s Trinity Church. A pupil of Karl Theodor Pachelbel, son of the composer Johann Pachelbel, Pelham was renowned throughout the Colonies as an organ virtuoso, harpsichordist, composer, and conductor, his admirers including as discerning an aficionado as Thomas Jefferson, whose library at Monticello is known to have contained collections of music curated and published by Pelham. Though born in England, Pelham’s work embodied the essence of the fledgling American republic, his efforts in Williamsburg after the Revolution molding European influences and New-World innovations into an original musical ethos that paralleled the nation’s development of a distinct identity. Regrettably, Pelham’s own music for organ is lost, but his significance to America’s musical heritage is honored in every public and private moment in which the organ resounds.

In the 218 years since Pelham’s death in 1805, organists have continued to dedicate their lives and careers to serving their communities as teachers, worship leaders, concert artists, composers, and stewards of America’s musical evolution. Recently completing his Doctor of Music in Organ Performance degree at Boston University, Dr. David von Behren is as learned and tireless an advocate for the organ, the instrument’s ever-expanding contemporary repertoire, and music education today as Pelham was in his time. Recorded in First-Plymouth Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, employing the church’s spectacular, custom-built Schoenstein Lied Chancel organ, von Behren’s new album Psalm-Sonata & Suites presents works by living composers, just as Pelham did when assembling music for his published compendia. Furthering the espousal of modern music manifested in his American Adventures and Merry Melodies for Advent and Christmas programmes, the pieces selected for Psalm-Sonata & Suites are remarkably diverse, reflecting the encouragingly bountiful trends in writing for the organ. The unifying element of the album—and the quality that elucidates the unique beauties of each work—is the heartfelt expressivity of von Behren’s playing, here communicated to the listener with unfeigned generosity of spirit.

The first of the album’s cornerstone works, Wisconsin-born Brenda Portman’s 2021 Psalm-Sonata No. 1, traverses a three-movement narrative derived from Psalms 13, 91, and 98, the music’s depictions of the emotional transitions among the texts yielding a basic structure that is at once symphonic, recalling Stravinsky’s 1930 Symphony of Psalms, and devoutly intimate in the manner of a Bach cantata. In von Behren’s performance, appreciation of the subtleties of which is owed in part to the fine work of sound engineer Michael Raleigh, the Sonata’s fluctuating moods assume hypnotic, perceptibly personal dimensions. The Psalmist’s lament of divine abandonment throbs in the Sonata’s first movement, the desperation of the words ‘How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?’ starkly communicated by the music’s jagged climaxes and retreats, realized in this account with absolute control.

The confidence of von Behren’s playing is tested not by the technical difficulty but by the psychological profundity of the Sonata’s second part, ‘He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.’ The accuracy and brilliance of his playing are consistent throughout the Sonata and its companions on this album, but the lyricism of his handling of the serene repose of Portman’s tone painting in this movement is especially exquisite. The exultation in the composer’s frenzied figurations in the Sonata’s final movement, ‘Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth burst into jubilant song,’ cascades from the instrument in fanfare-like surges, executed by von Behren with boundless energy and affecting sincerity of faith.

Born in Korea and based in Chicago, Marianne Kim assimilates musical influences from all corners of the globe into tonal language that echoes the diversity of her own experiences and the intersections of sundry cultures. In the three sections of her Meditation Suite, whispers of the styles of George Gershwin, Ernst Krenek, and Michael Nyman are interwoven with vestiges of the forms employed by Buxtehude, Lübeck, and Bach. The Suite’s first movement, marked ‘Gently,’ creates an aptly contemplative atmosphere, the organ’s voices employed as in a discordant anthem, but von Behren’s attention to accentuating the piece’s innate equilibrium discloses a latent playfulness thar frolics within the music’s textures.

Every note sounded on this recording is executed ‘with feeling,’ but this direction in the second movement of Kim’s Suite is observed with remarkable fidelity, the primary-color feelings of musical theater juxtaposed with sounds of haunting ambivalence. As von Behren animates its aural dioramas, the third movement’s description of ‘Moderately’ is as much an explication of its character as an indication of tempo. Kim exercises moderation in thematic development, eschewing the kind of exploitation of the organ’s myriad of effects used by some composers to disguise banality. There is also moderation in von Behren’s approach to the music: rather than relying upon the instrument’s ability to awe, he emphasizes the profundity with which Kim’s music engages the organist and the hearer in an unspoken dialogue.

Resembling a sequence of antiphons punctuating the inaugural entreaty of the Anaphora, the Eucharistic Prayer, the six variations of Tom Trenney’s Suite breve on SURSUM CORDA demonstrate command of musical metamorphosis akin to the transformational acuity found in sets of variations by Beethoven and Brahms. Its melodic line constructed with the elegance of Hildegard von Bingen’s monophony, the Petit Plein-jeu with which the Suite begins is played with vigor that provides an alluring contrast with the subsequent Andantino cantabile, phrased by von Behren with poetic grace. In the context of the music’s liturgical associations, the Scherzetto and Quickstep are perhaps unexpected, but Trenney’s mercurial writing and von Behren’s wittily-inflected playing remind that, as recorded in 2 Samuel 6:14, ‘David danced before the Lord with all his might.’ The exciting Toccata brevis is a whirlwind of compositional ideas that von Behren tames with technical panache. This performance reveals the Suite’s concluding Benediction to indeed be a blessing for organists and listeners, Trenney’s musical journey reaching a final destination made a welcoming refuge for the soul by von Behren’s earnest expressivity.

One of America’s most respected composers of contemporary sacred music, Dan Locklair creates scores that are equally adventurous and accessible—traits also embodied by von Behren’s musicianship. Dating from 2007, the four chorale preludes of Locklair’s St. John’s Suite reimagine in sound verses from the Gospel of John, fashioning a concise but compelling survey of the life of Christ. Treating John 12:13 (‘Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel’), the joyful first prelude is played with rousing immediacy, the contours and meaning of the text imparted by von Behren’s articulation of tonal clusters. The anxiety and foreboding that infiltrate the prelude based upon John 21:15 (‘...lovest thou me more than these?’) are heightened by the tension with which the piece is played, the harmonic symbolization of the promise of salvation sometimes fading but always present. The solemnity of John 10:11 (‘...the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep’) is evinced not with grandiose gravitas but with quiet simplicity. As it is played by von Behren, the final prelude, proclaiming ‘...blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed’ (John 20:29), is a cathartic resolution, the comfort of faith rewarded dissipating doubt and despair. The mutual faith among composers and organist is prodigiously rewarded in David von Behren’s performances on this album. So, too, is America’s unabating faith in the organ as the foundation of the nation’s musical life.

09 August 2023

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Henry Desmarest — CIRCÉ (K. Gauvin, A. Sheehan, T. Wakim, J. Blumberg, A. Forsythe, D. Williams; Boston Early Music Festival, 4 June 2023)

IN REVIEW: soprano KARINA GAUVIN as Circé (left) and tenor AARON SHEEAN as Ulisse (right) in Boston Early Music Festival's 2023 production of Henry Desmarest's CIRCÉ [Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]HENRY DESMAREST (1661 – 1741): CircéKarina Gauvin (Circé), Aaron Sheehan (Ulisse), Teresa Wakim (Astérie), Jesse Blumberg (Elphénor), Amanda Forsythe (Éolie), Douglas Williams (Polite), Hannah De Priest (L’Amour), Nola Richardson (Une nymphe, Une prêtresse, Une néréide), Mindy Ella Chu (Une prêtresse), Mireille Lebel (Minerve), Brian Giebler (Un amant fortuné, Une euménide), Jason McStoots (Phantase, Une euménide), James Reese (Un amant fortuné, Mercure), Kyle Stegall (Une songe, Aquilon), Daniel Fridley (Une euménide), Michael Galvin (Phaebétor), Jonathan Woody (La grand prêtre du temple de l’Amour), Ashley Mulcahy (ensemble), David Evans (ensemble); BEMF Dance Company; BEMF Orchestra; Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, musical directors [Gilbert Blin, stage director and set designer; Robert Mealy, orchestra director; Melinda Sullivan, dance director; Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière and Pierre-François Dollé, choreographers; Jérôme Kaplan, costume designer; Kelly Martin, lighting director; Kathleen Fay, executive producer; Boston Early Music Festival, Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Sunday, 4 June 2023]

The source of many stories that have been told upon the lyric stage, Ovid could have populated a vast tome with tales of the metamorphoses that have transformed opera since its inception in the final decades of the Sixteenth Century. From the recitative-driven model espoused by opera’s earliest exponents to Twenty-First-Century scores, in which sounds are participants in opera in their own right, the genre has evolved in some way with the creation of each new work. Repeatedly rejuvenated and reimagined via the initiatives of musical innovators including Jacopo Peri, Claudio Monteverdi, Luigi Rossi, Christoph Willibald Gluck, Jacques Offenbach, and Matthew Aucoin, a story like that of the mythological tunesmith Orpheus illustrates the capacity of opera to continually transform not only its own conventions but also the expectations and experiences of its audiences. The finest performances and productions affirm that opera is a strange and sublime realm in which reevaluation is often the most effective catalyst for creativity.

A peer of Ovid as an inspiration to opera composers and librettists, Homer provided in his Iliad and Odyssey comprehensive studies of the superstitions and social mores of ancient Greece, masterfully paralleling the actions of ordinary men and women in his accounts of the feats of legendary figures. Unsurprisingly, the denizens of his epics have often assumed operatic guises, their exploits enacted upon the stage both as exciting entertainment and as symbolic representations of diverse social and political situations. Louise-Geneviève Villot de Saintonge’s libretto for Henry Desmarest’s 1694 opera Circé, a tragédie en musique of the type popularized in France during the latter half of the Seventeebth Century by the Italian-born Jean-Baptiste Lully, with whom Desmarest likely studied in the 1670s, translated episodes from Homer’s accounts of the tribulations of Odysseus into the operatic dialect cultivated at the court of Louis XIV. Adhering to the custom of the era by launching their Circé with a prologue designed to flatter the opera’s royal audience, Desmarest and de Saintonge crafted a theatrical work in which, propelled by music of charm and variety, the gender paradigms of the age were examined and excoriated with perspicacity akin to that with which Jane Austen scrutinized the gender biases of Regency Britain

Though the product of Desmarest’s and de Saintonge’s collaboration undeniably exemplifies elements of the dramatic convolution typical of operas of its vintage, Circé also contains characterizations of near-Shakespearean depth. None of Circé’s principal characters is uniformly virtuous or maleficent in any conventional sense: each actor in the drama is motivated by disparate agendas, the clashes amongst which—in some instances in a single individual—intensify the opera’s histrionic discord. Providing the nucleus of the 2023 Festival’s celebration of women’s rôles as inspirations, subjects, creators, and practitioners, Boston Early Music Festival’s production of Circé glorified the proto-feminism of Desmarest’s and de Saintonge’s depictions of Circe, Ulysses, and their companions. In this staging, their woes, borrowed from the pages of Homer, were fascinatingly timely, vouchsafing that the monsters of myth lurk within the miscommunications and misunderstandings of the digital age.

IN REVIEW: dancer and choreographer MARIE-NATHALIE LACOURSIÈRE as La Fureur (center) with the company of Boston Early Music Festival's 2023 production of Henry Desmarest's CIRCÉ [Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]Monstres d’Antiquité: the company of Boston Early Music Festival’s 2023 production of Henry Desmarest’s Circé, with dancer and choreographer Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière as La Fureur (center)
[Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]

Grandiose spectacle was often as integral a component of Lullian tragédie en musique as it was of the Nineteenth-Century grand opéra of Auber, Halévy, and Meyerbeer, and contemporary documentation of the production team assembled for the première staging of Circé at the Académie Royale de Musique in November 1694 indicates that bountiful resources were lavished upon the opera’s inaugural showing. Under the guidance of the Festival’s Executive Director Kathleen Fay, BEMF transformed the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre into a hypnotic realization of Circé’s enchanted island in which the characters’ tempestuous inner and outward emotions intrigued and engaged the performers and their audience. Precepts of Seventeenth-Century stage deportment as modern scholarship interprets them were honored throughout the production, but Gilbert Blin’s stage direction and evocative set designs grounded even the most fanciful scenes in lavish but gritty realism. Their exalted ranks and supernatural abilities notwithstanding, the figures in Blin’s vivid tableaux behaved not as pantomime archetypes do but like living, feeling people.

Dazzlingly opulent, tastefully erotic, and strikingly phantasmagorical, Jérôme Kaplan’s costume designs lent visual appeal and lucidity to the opera’s narrative without impeding movement by singers and dancers. The latter, their ranks directed by Melinda Sullivan and including the production’s choreographers, Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière and Pierre-François Dollé, executed thoughtfully-conceived dance sequences with urbanity and athleticism, their gestures often undulating in tandem with the cadences of the text in the glowing ambience of Kelly Martin’s lighting. Unlike many of today’s productions of standard-repertory works, BEMF’s Circé exulted in the piece’s eccentricities rather than seeking to disguise them with incongruous stage business. Blin and BEMF’s team of artists and artisans demonstrated that Circé is a work that needs rejuvenation, not rehabilitation.

Their work in much-praised productions of operas by Lully and Marc-Antoine Charpentier ideally prepared BEMF’s Music Directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs for successfully reawakening and energizing Desmarest’s episodic score. Guiding the continuo with the attention to detail for which they are renowned, the pair achieved commendable cohesion and consistent momentum, maintaining dramatic tension but avoiding anachronistic excesses. Led by violinist Robert Mealy, whose instinctual, almost linguistic phrasing engendered near-ideal support for the singers, BEMF’s orchestra met the challenges of Desmarest’s score with the virtuosity that frequent BEMF patrons might take for granted. Desmarest’s orchestral writing is predictably similar to Lully’s and Charpentier’s, but the playing of BEMF’s musicians illuminated Circé’s originality, particularly in abundant finely-wrought passages for winds. Sonically complementing the production’s visual splendor, O’Dette and Stubbs crafted a sumptuous instrumental gallery in which the kaleidoscopic hues of the cast’s character portraits shone.

IN REVIEW: tenor JASON MCSTOOTS as une Phantase in Boston Early Music Festival's 2023 production of Henry Desmarest's CIRCÉ [Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]Une voix d’un autre monde: tenor Jason McStoots as une Phantase in Boston Early Music Festival’s 2023 production of Henry Desmarest’s Circé
[Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]

Embodying the Festival’s homage to powerful women, the rôle of L’Amour was depicted not as a male figure as in traditional mythology but as an unapologetically ebullient feminine presence, animated by the effervescent performance of soprano Hannah De Priest, whose sparkling voicing of ‘Je reçois vôtre hommage, il est tendre et sincère’ in the eighth scene of Act Two epitomized the mellifluous benevolence of her characterization throughout the show. Heard as a Nymphe, a Prêtresse, and a Néréide, soprano Nola Richardson also sang refulgently, and mezzo-soprano Mindy Ella Chu enunciated the portentous words of a Prêtresse with vocal poise. In the second scene of Act Three, mezzo-soprano Mireille Lebel voiced Minerve’s ‘Il n’est pas temps de paraitre’ arrestingly, and the goddess’s wise authority was powerfully conveyed in every scene in which she appeared. Enriching ensembles, the voices of mezzo-soprano Ashley Mulcahy and tenor David Evans blended euphoniously with thoss of their colleagues foretelling future success in larger assignments.

A quartet of uniformly capable tenors inspirited an array of secondary rôles with vocal elegance and incisive articulation of texts. As un Amant fortuné in the fourth scene of Act One and une Euménide in Act Four, Brian Giebler sang with impeccable control and tonal allure, imparting the dramatic significance of each word that he uttered. Jason McStoots effortlessly scaled the vocal heights of Desmarest’s writing for Phantase in Act Three and an Euménide in Acr Four, and, first appearing as un Amant fortuné in Act One, James Reese voiced Mercure’s ‘Fuis loin d’ici, troupe odieuse’ in Act Four with apt authority. Kyle Stegall’s ethereal timbre shimmered in the writing for une Songe in Act Three and as Aquilon in the fifth scene of Act Five, his refined singing of ‘De la fille d’Éole, il faut combler les vœux’ heightening the consequence of the words.

Extending the superlative caliber of the vocalism into the lower compass, bass Daniel Fridley sang une Euménide’s music in the fourth scene of Act Four with imperturbable assurance. In Act Three, bass Michael Galvin intoned Phæbétor’s ‘Ulisse, il faut quitter ces funestes climats’ with urgency, the voice viscerally evincing the import of the words. Both in the music for le Grand Prêtre du Temple de l’Amour in Act Two, ‘Approchez-vous, heureux mortels’ voiced with stirring sobriety and stylistic acumen, and in ensembles, bass-baritone Jonathan Woody’s voice reverberated rousingly in the auditorium’s acoustic, his descents to the depths of his range reliably audible.

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone DOUGLAS WILLIAMS as Polite in Boston Early Music Festival's 2023 production of Henry Desmarest's CIRCÉ [Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]Le compagnon dévoué: bass-baritone Douglas Williams as Polite in Boston Early Music Festival’s 2023 production of Henry Desmarest’s Circé
[Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]

BEMF’s loyalty to artists whose work advances the Festival’s ideal of reintroducing neglected scores with a fusion of uninhibited imagination and fidelity to historical accuracy often begets fortuitous casting, and this production of Circé was distinguished by superb singing from artists who are much admired by Boston audiences. Returning to BEMF, where he will be heard in 2024 as Nero in Reinhard Keiser’s Die römische Unruhe, oder Die edelmütige Octavia, bass-baritone Douglas Williams portrayed the Greek prince Polite, a companion on Ulisse’s journeys who has fallen in love with Circé’s confidante Astrie, with characteristic suavity. Credible as both a rugged warrior and a tender lover, his Polite wooed with sultriness and warned with immediacy, voicing ‘Enfin, nous n’avons plus de témoins que l’Amour’ in Act Two with solemnity and electrifying vocal cogency.

Dueting with Astérie, Williams sang ‘Amour, que tes plaisirs sont doux!’ seductively, his phrasing limning the character’s emotional engagement and the singer’s command of verbal inflection. In the Act Five scene with Astérie, he again mastered the vocal and expressive ranges of Polite’s music, delivering ‘Ce héros m’a sauvé plus d’une fois la vie’ confidently. Uniting his voice with Astérie’s, his pronouncement of ‘Que ma joie est extrême!’ rightly ecstatic. Williams portrayed Polite with subtlety and depth greater than the character’s rôle in the opera’s action suggests that he possesses, but every choice was justified by score and libretto.

IN REVIEW: soprano AMANDA FORSYTHE as Éolie in Boston Early Music Festival's 2023 production of Henry Desmarest's CIRCÉ [Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]La fille du vent: soprano Amanda Forsythe as Éolie in Boston Early Music Festival’s 2023 production of Henry Desmarest’s Circé
[Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]

Rather than Penelope, the wife whose much-tested constancy is extolled by Homer and in operatic incarnations including Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria and Gabriel Fauré’s Pénélopé, Ulisse’s paramour in Desmarest’s and de Saintonge’s Circé is Éolie, a daughter of the queen of Ligari who has no counterpart in Homer. Regardless of the lady’s questionable literary provenance, she indisputably received an exquisite portrayal in BEMF’s Circé from soprano Amanda Forsythe. The diaphonous brilliance of Éolie’s first appearance in Act Three introduced a characterization distinguished by beguiling tonal beauty, verbal acuity, and artful ornamentation. The first words of ‘Désirs, transports, cruelle impatience’ revealed Forsythe’s Éolie to be a woman abused but by no means defeated by fate. No Ulisse could have been immune to the magnetism that emanated from Éolie in their first scene together, in which the soprano’s voice glistened throughout its compass. In the Act Four scene with Circé, in which the princess courageously faced her ferocious rival for Ulisse’s love, Forsythe intoned ‘J’ignore les détours de ce bois solitaire’ and ‘Moments où je dois voir l’objet de ma tendresse’ with contrasting distress and determination, ingenuously differentiated with shifting vocal colors.

Éolie’s daring mission to free Ulisse from Circé’s clutches coming to fruition in Act Five, Forsythe’s vocalism radiated the assertiveness of a noble spirit still enduring agonies but certain of the integrity of her goal. In her scene with Ulisse, ‘J’ai crû vôtre perte certaine’ communicated resolve that surged in Forsythe’s singing of ‘Ne nous quittons jamais, payons-nous des douceurs.’ Intuitively sculpting phrases with complete comprehension of the felicities of the composer’s settings of the librettist’s words but never over-accentuating a note or syllable, she garnered empathy for the unflappable lover she depicted. In lesser company, Forsythe might easily have dominated the performance: in this performance, she was a resplendent supernova in a gleaming constellation of fellow stars.

IN REVIEW: baritone JESSE BLUMBERG as Elphénor in Boston Early Music Festival's 2023 production of Henry Desmarest's CIRCÉ [Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]L’amant éconduit: baritone Jesse Blumberg as Elphénor in Boston Early Music Festival’s 2023 production of Henry Desmarest’s Circé
[Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]

If Circé can be said to have a villain in a conventional sense, he is Elphénor, a Greek prince and fellow traveler of Ulisse and Polite whose amorous ambitions supplant his allegiance to his comrades, yet his actions are spurred not by iniquity but by desire  The character’s torturous duplicity was the cornerstone of baritone Jesse Blumberg’s portrayal. From Elphénor’s entrance in Act One, Blumberg lent burgeoning tension to each of the prince’s exchanges with Astérie, the object of his romantic obsession, singing ‘L’Inhumaine me fuit, rien ne peut l’attendrir’ in their scene together with a rejected lover’s ardor and frustration. A different facet of Elphénor’s persona emerged in his Act Two scene with Ulisse, in which Blumberg’s forceful voicing of ‘Quand le bruit de votre naufrage’ prefaced an incendiary, conspiratorial account of ‘Quand on aime tendrement.’

Elphénor’s plight reaches its zenith in Act Three, and Blumberg responded with skilled vocal acting, words insightfully shaped into piercing declarations of feeling as in his tormented singing of ‘Je lui suis suspect, l’infidèle.’ Cornered by the suspicious Circé, the baritone’s intimidated Elphénor sang ‘Quand on a tant d’amour avec tant de beauté’ with audible trepidation. The subsequent discourse with Astérie, disgusted by the prince’s unwelcome protestations of love, drew from Blumberg his most affecting singing of the afternoon, the slight hardness at the top of the range conveying the emotional toll of Astérie’s scorn. Declaiming ‘C’en est trop, barbare inhumaine’ wrenchingly, Blumberg intimated the gravitas of Elphénor’s despair, the fervor of his singing making the forlorn man’s suicide genuinely moving. Especially when he returned as a spirit summoned from Hades in Act Four, defying Circé’s command to betray Ulisse and Éolie by divulging their liaison, Elphénor’s vocal line intermittently descended beyond the lower extremity of the strongest portion of Blumberg’s range, but every note of the part was sung with conviction and musicality.

IN REVIEW: soprano TERESA WAKIM as Astérie in Boston Early Music Festival's 2023 production of Henry Desmarest's CIRCÉ [Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]L’objet de deux amours: soprano Teresa Wakim as Astérie in Boston Early Music Festival’s 2023 production of Henry Desmarest’s Circé
[Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]

Although the proud woman’s disdain inadvertently precipitates Elphénor’s demise, Circé’s confidante Astérie was in soprano Teresa Wakim’s performance both pensive and fiery. At her entrance in Act One, innate conviviality resounded in her voicing of ‘Vous serez toujours jeune et belle,’ but, joined by Circé, ‘Pour les amants les plus heureux’ disclosed increasing uncertainty, evoked by the soprano’s tonal shading. A steely edge glinted in Wakim’s timbre in the scene with Elphénor, exasperation giving way to ire as the lovelorn prince pressed his suit. Building from her anguished ‘Ah! c’est trop retenir mes pleurs’ to a febrile performance of ‘L’inhumaine Circé, par un enchantement,’ the progression of Astérie’s disillusionment in Act One was realized with gripping directness. In the scenes with Ulisse and Polite that followed, Wakim deployed motivic vocal emphases to enliven each emotion, serenading her true love Polite with a caressing ‘Amour, que tes plaisirs sont doux!’ of unaffected zeal.

Wakim’s singing in the fateful scene with Elphénor in Act Three, Astérie’s contemptuous dismissal of his affection ultimately impelling him to take his life, coruscated with indignation and impetuosity, the clarity of her diction wielded like a dagger but lacking the savagery of true hatred. In the Act Five scene with Polite, the iron core of the soprano’s voice gave her reading of ‘Ah! vous allez périr sans délivrer Ulisse’ galvanizing potency, and she sang ‘Dieux! le cruel m’abandonne’ with insurmountable focus. Finally extricated from the strife of amorous entanglements and restored to her beloved, Wakim’s Astérie voiced ‘Que ma joie est extrême!’ with triumphant vigor. Instances of intonational occlusion in Wakim’s performance were laudably few, the technical accomplishment of her singing fostering a characterization that, while wholly authentic in style, heightened the surprising modernity of Astérie’s complex psychological development.

IN REVIEW: tenor AARON SHEEHAN as Ulisse in Boston Early Music Festival's 2023 production of Henry Desmarest's CIRCÉ [Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]Le grec enchanté: tenor Aaron Sheehan as Ulisse in Boston Early Music Festival’s 2023 production of Henry Desmarest’s Circé
[Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]

Among Circé’s ambiguous players, the legendary hero Ulisse is given an especially equivocal ethical constitution: neither faithful nor faithless, he pursues a course that is at once opportunistic and inexorable. The journeyer’s inherent restlessness was omnipresent in tenor Aaron Sheehan’s entrancing performance of the rôle, in which unerring musicality was fused with sophisticated theatrical savvy. Singing ‘Quel reproche cruel pour mon cœur amoureux!’ in Act One with exceptional musical accuracy and dramatic involvement, he extracted the idealized figure of legend from de Saintonge’s distillation of Homer’s epic and, with the aid of Desmarest’s writing, molded him into a man of joltingly current sensibilities. In his scene with Astérie in Act Two, Sheehan’s poetic but pointed vocalism evidenced the confounding contradictions of Ulisse’s predicament. Suffusing his proclamation of ‘La conquête de votre cœur’ in the scene with Circé with caution, Ulisse’s loathing for Circé’s infatuation seethed in ‘Désir de se venger, inutile fureur.’

The expressive vitality of Sheehan’s singing fashioned a performance of ‘Faudra-t-il toujours me contraindre?’ in which the spectrum of Ulisse’s reactions to his circumstances could be discerned in the tenor’s understated gradations of tone, yet even in his fraught meeting with Elphénor the voice was lustrously attractive. Dashingly projecting ‘O Ciel! ô juste Ciel! j’implore ton secours’ in the scene with Éolie, he lavished a stream of mesmerizingly lovely tone on ‘Quand on aime tendrement.’ Sparring with the increasingly volatile Circé in Act Four, Sheehan’s Ulisse unleashed a deluge of disillusionment in a galvanizing voicing of ‘Dieux! quelle injustice effroyable!’ The Act Five scene with Éolie allowed Sheehan to shift from fierceness to finesse, and the effervescence of his singing of ‘Que ne vous dois-je pas, adorable Éolie?’ persisted in an ebullient account of ‘Ne nous quittons jamais, payons-nous des douceurs.’ Rather than depicting Ulisse as a caricatured protagonist, marginalizing his unsavory traits, Sheehan embraced all of the character’s dimensions, his fleet, fetching vocalism rendering the negative as enthralling as the positive.

IN REVIEW: soprano KARINA GAUVIN as Circé in Boston Early Music Festival's 2023 production of Henry Desmarest's CIRCÉ [Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]La reine du rejet: soprano Karina Gauvin as Circé in Boston Early Music Festival’s 2023 production of Henry Desmarest’s Circé
[Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Boston Early Music Festival]

Separating the opera proper from its allegorical prologue, BEMF’s production accentuated the dramatic verisimilitude and musical equilibrium with which Desmarest and de Saintonge structured their depiction of Circé, qualities that were hallmarks of Québecoise soprano Karina Gauvin’s portrayal of the rôle. Although Circé’s tessitura is centered in some passages lower than the range in which Gauvin’s voice is most voluptuous, she characterized the protean sorceress as a sensitive, unapologetically sexual woman who maintained regal dignity in rage and repose. With her dulcet cry of ‘Ah! Que l’Amour aurait de charmes,’ Gauvin established her Circé as a woman unafraid of baring her vulnerabilities, but the doubt that undermined her joy in ‘Une secrète jalousie’ offered a glimpse of the severity of which she was capable.

Sharing her concerns with Astérie, ‘Pour les amants les plus heureux’ was sung with restraint, Circé seeming to distrust her own wisdom. Her statement of ‘Prince, vous connaissez jusqu’où va ma tendresse’ to Ulisse was as vehement in its way as her asseveration of ‘Votre amitié s’intéresse’ to his fellow Greeks was portentous. Gauvin sang ‘Changez-vous tristes lieux’ lustily, remorselessly bewitching Ulisse’s companions. Circé’s disquiet grew more pervasive in her Act Two scene with Ulisse, the simmering consternation in her ‘Quoi? vous n’avez rien à me dire?’ detonating in ‘Désir de se venger, inutile fureur.’ The scene with Elphénor in Act Three also bristled with incredulity, the soprano’s voicing of ‘Prince, je ne saurais vous cacher ma tristesse’ charged with vexation. The anger of Circé’s assertion of ‘Ulisse est inconstant’ to Astérie was tinged with sorrow, as was her poignant ‘Enfin il est donc vrai qu’Elphénor ne vit plus’ in the Act Four contest with Ulisse. Commanding Elphénor’s shade to rise from Hades and name her rival, ‘Dieu ténébreux du vaste empire’ was chanted with irrefutable authority, but, the name withheld, her desolation erupted into vitriol in the scene with Éolie, ‘Qu’ai-je entendu? c’est ma rivale, o Dieux!’ sung with abrasive bitterness. In Gauvin’s performance, Circé’s ‘Venez, Démons, empruntez les attraits’ was worthy of comparison with the frenzied outbursts of Cherubini’s Médée and Verdi’s Lady Macbeth.

The emotional gauntlet to which Circé is subjected in Act Five recalls the final afflictions suffered by the heroines of Lully’s Armide and Charpentier’s Médée. Acted without prudence and circumspection, Circé’s final scenes could educe parody instead of pathos, but it was in these scenes that Gauvin’s performance was most touchingly human. Deprived of her power to conquer by deceit, she was at last not a sovereign or a sorceress but only, fully a woman. Her exclamation of ‘O rage! ô douleur mortelle!’ was not shrieked but voiced with pained beauty. The venomous yearning for retribution that coursed through Gauvin’s singing of ‘Ah! quelle rigueur extrême!’ was terrifying, but it was Circé’s heartbreak that billowed most memorably from the singer’s vocal cords. For Gauvin’s Circé, the subjugation of her sorcery liberated her feminity, a declaration of independence as momentous in 2023 as it was in 1694.