Ever since Les Arts Florissants brought its epoch-making production of Lully’s Atys to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1989, those in love with 17th and 18th century opera—especially the French genus–eagerly await every New York visit by the acclaimed early-music group. Les Fêtes Vénitiennes, a historically important opéra-ballet by André Campra, arrived last week at the Howard Gilman Opera House in a gorgeous production by Robert Carsen conducted by William Christie, but, for all the talent and expense lavished on this project, I was, to my astonishment, quite bored.
Although opera began in Italy in the late 16>th century, the French didn’t get it together until the 1670s. Soon though, Lully created the tragédie en musique, a complex five-act musical drama, occasionally interrupted by divertissements, extended “entertainments” featuring ballets. However, Lully’s death in 1687 prompted a shift to a less elevated, more entertaining form of opera.
Campra was the maître de musique at Notre Dame Cathedral, but he was irresistibly drawn to the theater and in 1697 covertly composed L’Europe Galante, the first-ever opéra-ballet, and it was an instant success.
Instead of a single plot, these new works contained several light-hearted entrées or short acts, each with its own plot and characters. Once shunned by Lully (who was born in Florence), Italian culture was now the rage, and one of the entrées of L’Europe Galante is entitled L’Italie, and 1699’s Le Carnaval de Venise was another Campra runaway success.
Although he tried his luck with more serious operas, the public demanded Campra return to opera-ballet and Les Fêtes Vénitiennes or “Venetian Festivities” premiered in 1710. I understand that Carsen’s production is the opera’s first staging since the 18th century, and although these resuscitations often reveal long-buried masterpieces, this wasn’t the case Saturday night. I’ve long been a fan of Campra’s sacred music and solo cantatas, and 25 years ago Les Arts Florissants recorded his stunning Idoménée, a tragédie en musique whose libretto was later adapted for Mozart’s Idomeneo. I was therefore shocked at how bland and formulaic much of Les Fêtes Vénitiennes was.
The “plots” of the three entrées are diffuse and paper-thin, but that’s not entirely unexpected—the point is to set up the elaborate divertissement at the end. Unfortunately, Campra’s dance music is noisy (lots of percussion played by the inevitable Marie-Ange Petit) but unmemorable, and his broad humor—probably a smash in the early 18th century—fell flat. For example, a lecherous singing teacher attempted at length to grope his reluctant pupil—a scene that unfortunately also has nothing to do with the rest of the act. The coup de théâtre that concludes the entrée—the abduction of the singer portraying Flore—occasioned many puzzled looks as her lover who plotted the enterprise had disappeared 30 minutes earlier: “Oh yeah, him! I forgot!”
Perhaps because there’s so little dramatic content and the music fails to inspire, Carsen kept the stage constantly in motion—not so difficult with a cast of 11, a chorus of 25, 11 dancers and nearly a dozen elegantly garbed men who rearranged the elements of Radu Boruzescu’s canny and economical scenic design which evoked the shadowy arcades of Venice. Ed Wubbe’s lively choreography for his Scapino Ballet proved appealing (except for the crudely rutting sheep) if unchallenging but at least it was truer to the music than a number of other LAF productions have been. An annoying recurrent feature, though, was having the chorus “hoot and holler” during the dance numbers to make sure that everyone knew they was supposed to be having a riotous good time. Carsen’s final tableau—the stage piled high with trash from contemporary tourists to Venice–was cheap, unmotivated and ended the evening on a sour note.
The vocal music of Les Fêtes Vénitiennes isn’t particularly elaborate or demanding, requiring primarily elegant presentation and clear diction. Standouts were soprano Rachel Redmond, lovely in her ariette (sung in Italian) about a butterfly, bass François Lis bold in his fatuous courting airs in that same entrée, and Belgian tenor Reinoud Van Mechelen who twinkled and soared through the score’s most bewitching vocal number, “Naissez, brillantes fleurs,” Zéphyr’s da capo aria near the opera’s conclusion.
Remembered for his flamboyant Platée, Marcel Beekman used his grating tenor to comic effect as the aggressive Mâitre de Chant and Mâitre de Musique. Cyril Auvity is a personal favorite, but he lacked grateful music with which to display his suave haute-contre. Two veterans of Le Jardin de Voix. Les Arts Florissants’s young artist program, Elodie Fonnard and Emilie Renard were pleasing if a bit anonymous, and replacing the usually sparkling Emmanuelle de Negri, Magali Léger disappointed by sounding underpowered and raspy. Baritone Jonathan McGovern, a new name to me, excelled in three parts and sounded remarkably like Marc Mauillon who originated the same roles in Paris last year.
Though much of the music disappointed, it was still a joy to hear Christie’s luxe orchestra playing splendidly. I was close enough that during a number of uninteresting recitatives I just watched his incomparable continuo team—David Simpson, Jonathan Cable, Thomas Dunford, Brian Feehan and the always marvelous Béatrice Martin—do their thing. The Les Arts Florissants chorus, so thrilling in Handel’s Theodora last fall, performed at less than its considerable best, perhaps because they were so often dressing, undressing and rolling orgiastically around the stage.
Throughout Les Fêtes Vénitiennes I couldn’t help but think “if only this was Rameau instead!” While Campra composed some lovely things, he was no Rameau—a miracle and the greatest French composer of the 18th century and creator of the two best opéra-ballets: Les Fêtes d’Hébé and Les Indes Galantes, the latter which Les Arts Florissants performed so thrillingly in concert at BAM in 1993.
Although grateful to see Les Fêtes Vénitiennes, I guiltily wished that instead it would have been La Princesse de Navarre or La Temple de la Gloire, two of Rameau’s rarely seen collaborations with Voltaire. For those who missed this visit by LAF, the Boston Early Music Festival will next year present another Campra’s other Venetian confection Le Carnaval de Venise as the operatic centerpiece of next year’s festival. Frankly I’m now less tempted to attend.
Photo Credit: Jack Vartoogia