Marc-Antoine Charpentier came along at the wrong time for a composer of French opera. Lully had persuaded Louis XIV (his dancing partner) to give him a monopoly on composing stage music in France. One of the grandest dames about court, Mademoiselle de Guise, provided Charpentier a regular gig at her palace and an apartment over her stables for seventeen years. When he left, he worked for the Grand Dauphin, the king’s son, and for the Jesuits, for whom he produced oratorios like the currently much-revived David et Jonathas. But he didn’t produce much in the way of secular tragédie-lyrique—only two or three survive, notably a Médée and the abbreviated La descente de l’Orphée aux Enfers. Gotham Chamber Opera is presenting the New York stage premiere of the latter at St. Paul’s Chapel through Sunday, as part of Trinity Church’s annual Twelfth Night Festival.  

It is not clear whether what survives of Déscente is complete or if it is all that Charpentier composed of a longer libretto. Upset by the death of his bride, Euridice, on their wedding day, Orpheus, greatest of human musicians (his father, Apollo, being god of music, must be allowed a certain superior ability—he flayed Marsyas alive for questioning it, and I’m not going to take the risk), descends to the realm of the dead. There, he sings so beautifully that the souls in torment are comforted and the rulers of that kingdom, Pluton and Proserpine, give him back his bride, but only if he does not turn to look at her before they reach the surface of the earth. Happily, the couple depart—and the manuscript ends.

This may be just as well, as the myth ends sadly: Orpheus doubts the good faith of the gods, turns to look a moment too soon, and back the girl goes. Gluck tacked on a happy ending to his better-known version, but that has never made any sense: We can’t get our dead back, no matter how much we love them, no matter how beautifully we sing. Time doesn’t go in reverse.

Charpentier gives us about an hour’s worth of music, too little for a satisfying evening. This was the major flaw of the Gotham presentation, which otherwise boasted the elegant stage values (Andrew Eggert, stage director), witty use of an existing landmark (Julia Noulin-Merat, scenic designer; Mark Stanley, lighting), handsome looks (Vita Tzykun, costumes) and attractive orchestral sound that are generally features of this company. But it was an appetizer but left us hungry for a main event. There are operas that last an hour and leave the spectator musically fulfilled and emotionally spent, but the incomplete arc of La Déscente is not one of them. It is a tease, requiring something more, a partner on the bill, curtain-raiser or closer, to complete the theme or vary it as the case may be.

The vocal star of the performance, for me, was the Proserpine, Mary Feminear, a mezzo with dark, dulcet tones and a technique full of seductive character—she only had five minutes to show off (no one but Orpheus had much more), and I’m eager to know what else she can do. The other women, notably Jamilyn Manning-White as Euridice, made less of an impression. The men fared better: Daniel Curran’s wan but determined, well-phrased Orphée, Jeffrey Beruan as a tender-hearted Pluton, and the suffering victims of Tartarus revitalized by Orpheus’s singing, enthusiastically depicted by Cullen Gandy, Gerard Michael d’Emilio and John Brancy, who doubled as an encouraging Papa Apollon. These three filled the chapel with harmonious lamentation, obviating any need for a chorus. Neal Goren led an orchestra of eight (three gambas outgunning two violins!) and the graceful drama proceeded at a fine, hearty pace.

Photo by Richard Termine.