The Elector of Hannover, as is well known, kept a hippogriff, a creature long thought fabulous or at least extinct. In fact, he was in every way fabulous. The Elector hoped to fly to London on its back and descend to the throne should the moribund Queen Anne ever actually die. Alas, when she was finally found to be dead, in 1714, the animal had vanished and King George went to England by boat.
But while they were waiting to succeed, the Hannovers lent their pet to Agostino Steffani, composer, singer, keyboard virtuoso, bishop in partibus and secret papal diplomatic agent, who introduced the beast into his 1691 opera, Orlando Generoso.
In the triumphant American premiere of this opera at the Boston Early Music Festival last week, the hippogriff was among the many stars of the show, carrying the unwary Ruggiero far from his beloved Bradamante, who pursued him halfway across Asia—only to find him exchanging laments with another soprano. Caught! In flagrante duetto!
The BEMF production also included a dragon, a turbulent sea, and a ballet of baroque dance steps performed by automatons in a somewhat jerky style at the command of a wicked sorcerer. It was magic. And then there was the singing …!
The magic was no surprise. If you’ve been following the Boston Early Music Festival for any length of time (it’s been running for 20 years), mythical shenanigans to match the gaudiness (and the backstage machinery) of the Emerson Majestic Theater are simply to be expected.
The surprise, the true magic of the occasion every time, is the level of the music-making, vocal and instrumental. Paul O’Dette (theorbo) and Stephen Stubbs (baroque guitar), who have led the festival and its orchestra since inception, put on one of the finest shows on earth.
If you love early music (before Mozart, let’s say, for a benchmark), especially baroque opera, I assume you were in Boston this month. If not, why not?
Why do you not clear a few days from your schedule every two years to hit the Hub? You’re not going to hear so much, see so much, study so much anywhere else.
The museum exhibitions! The craft shows (admit it, you’re tired of crochet and have always wanted to spend a winter honing a home-made theorbo—well, they’ve got a guy who’ll show you how)! The intriguing academic lectures on how to ornament an aria in different styles! The nightly concerts on the general theme (this year: Dreams and Madness)! The “Fringe events!” In this hemisphere Boston is the capital of Early Music.
But if baroque opera is your number one thing, you have no excuse for absence. You should have been at one of the five performances of Steffani’s Orlando Generoso on the flowery stage of the Emerson Majestic, or in the crescent quarters of Jordan Hall for the company’s tribute to Versailles, with music by Charpentier, Lully and Lalande, sung and danced in the latest Louis XIV style.
For delight, for polish, for musicianship, I would give Les Arts Florissants the lead by the tiniest hair—just a hair—but for the variety of the festival surrounding its centerpiece, nothing on earth matches BEMF. Half the folks present for the four hours of Orlando when I attended it, Friday night, seemed to be there for the second time that week, and I wanted to go back myself.
Steffani was born near Padua and his adolescent singing won him a stint in the great basilica of Saint Anthony. (Had he been born in the south, he might have been a candidate for castration.) His talent earned him a visit to the wealthy court of Munich and, later, Paris in the era of Lully and Charpentier, both of whom influenced his composing style.
Annually, for Carnival in Munich, he would compose an opera, then a new spectacular entertainment in Germany. From Munich he was hired away by the up and coming court of the elector of Hannover who, though Protestant, was a frequent visitor to Venice, familiar with its artistic scene. Steffani’s half dozen operas for Hannover usually make some graceful allusion to the monarch’s Guelph-Este ancestry, and Orlando Generoso, based on Ariosto’s epic poem, is such an allusion.
In his later years, besides publishing several volumes of chamber duets for performance by gifted amateurs, Steffani took holy orders and was relied upon in diplomatic maneuvers. Opera was evolving in Steffani’s day. Opera is always evolving; when it stops, it will die.
Since Steffani left Italy in his teens, his operatic style owes little to the Venetian or Neapolitan manner of vocal excess at the expense of everything else. Rather, French declamation (and dance interlude) is blended with Italian melody.
The formal distinctions between aria and recitative that we know from Handel had not yet solidified; arias are briefer, with fewer da capo repeats, and the ornamentation is just as likely to occur in the recitatives, extending the singer’s thought or emphasizing turbulent emotions.
There are lines that begin as recits and then turn into arias unexpectedly—the scholarly term is “aria escavata,” arias excavated from the recitative. Oboes and bassoons—even, at one point, a harp—double the singer’s line and give a color to the harmony unknown in Italian opera at this time.
One of the commentary lecturers suggested that Steffani’s Orlando bears a closer resemblance to Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas than to anything else of the time—an opera still ringing in my ears from the Angel’s Share performance in Brooklyn this month—and I was dubious. Purcell’s opera is so short and direct; Steffani’s so long and intricately plotted!
But during the performance, as the brief, intense arias and duets alternated with enchanted or grotesque and humorous interludes, I grasped his meaning. Orlando resembles a long Purcell opera, or three short ones in succession.
In Steffani’s day, one suspects, the singers were more inclined to stand and deliver their amorous addresses and melancholy reflections, but under Gilbert Blin’s stage direction, the singers enactedtheir arias, their changes of mind, costume, fortune throughout the night, and when they hadn’t much to do, a chorus of Chinese mandarinettes or spirits of the air, or a couple of malevolent thugs, or the clown figure Brunello (whether he had anything to sing or not) would come on for a dance interlude or an attempted mugging. Both kinds of mugging.
Melinda Sullivan and Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière designed courtly dances, and each act concluded (as had always been true with court entertainments) with elaborate baroque figures performed by the entire company.
The sets were by Blin and Kate A. Noll, and since we have all got bored with classical ruins and (in the Orlando operas) medieval landscapes, and this opera is set in Cathay as much as anyplace else, their happy inspiration was colorful chinoiserie, in architecture and hue derived from the export porcelain of the day. The special effects include butterflies and lightning bugs, whose magic is probably the work of Kelly Martin’s lighting design.
The striking costumes by Anna Watkins were medieval for the European characters, Oriental for the Emperor Galafro and his court. There was plenty to dazzle the eye. And then there was the singing …!
Orlando, whose unrestrained emotional leaps from warlike ardor to impassioned amour are the central focus of this bundle of epic legends, is the grandest role in the opera. It is not clear if it was composed for a castrato or a bravura tenor—in those days, castrati were rare north of the Alps, but aristocratic roles were always given to the higher voices.
In Boston it was taken by Aaron Sheehan, a local favorite. He is tall, slim, personable and a fine vocal actor, capable of putting a tragic spin on his predicament in a dungeon scene and of warrior determination when liberated from madness and from love. But though he is an artist of great caliber, the voice itself lacks distinction: it’s not an interesting sound. I found myself wondering what Richard Croft or Paul Agnew would make of this splendid role.
Angelica was sung by Amanda Forsythe, the sweetheart of Boston, her twinkling, effortless ornaments giving merry personality to her latest series of flirtations, though not until Act III did a new, womanly, emotional and lovely tone emerge and captivate.
Teresa Wakim, as Melissa, a witch who challenges the wizardly conspiracies, possesses the proper airy sound and feathery ornamentation. She was also delicious on Saturday in Charpentier’s Les Plaisirs de Versailles, as La Musique, triumphant but understandably enraged at the constant interruptions of La Conversation (Marjorie Maltais) during a musical occasion.
I was gobsmacked, however, by the Bradamante of Hungarian soprano Emöke Baráth, whose rich, expressive voice, brilliant in triumph, heartbreaking in tragedy, easily filled the opera house. We felt her heartbreak even when the silliness of the plot undermined it, and yearned for every couplet the sword-wielding warrior maiden tossed into the dialogue.
Ruggiero, who (as you know) is the Moorish knight destined to marry Bradamante (Charlemagne’s niece) in order to establish the noble house of Este (and Guelph and Hannover), and Medoro, the wounded Saracen nursed to life and love by the capricious Angelica, were sung by countertenors of exceptional skill. (Were these roles composed for countertenors, castrati or trouser mezzos? The program was unclear on this point.)
Christopher Lowrey, a fine actor with a floating tone and a good shake, was especially effective in the proto duet when he and Angelica bewail—separately but in the same melody—their absent true loves, unaware that at least one of those loves is listening in and leaping to conclusions.
Kacper Szela?ek, the Polish countertenor who sang Medoro, has a sizable, flawless and sensuous instrument, luscious as ripe cherries, and his sighs of heartbreak would melt jade (this being China). His phrasing, his attention to meaningful detail, his trills glow with star quality.
Still another countertenor appeared in the performance, Flavio Ferri-Benedetti, as Galafro, the Emperor of Cathay and, thus, Angelica’s father. But as she has been on an extended gap year in France fluttering knightly hearts (especially Orlando’s), Galafro has forgotten what she looks like and, taking her for a shepherdess (don’t the Cathayans wear silk? What would be the poetic word for a tender of silkworms?), he wants her for himself. (Gasps of “Ewww” filled the theater—oh come on, you’ve seen worse on Game of Thrones.)
Ferri-Benedetti, an able singer and actor, is no leading man. His voice has a humorous bubble and squeak rather than flow, well suited to the preposterous emperor in his gaudy kimono.
Bass-baritone Jesse Blumberg, well-known in many branches of the repertoire, sang the Saracen sorcerer Atlante, with impressive coloratura skill, gracious low notes and an appealing resignation to Fate when not all his power, his army of robots or his loyal runaway hippogriff can save his beloved nephew Ruggiero from his Christian destiny.
Baritone Tenor Zachary Wilder played—I stress that word rather than “sang”—Brunello, a disreputable clown and part-time demon. The stage directors have employed him to lighten the length of a four-hour performance—he’s always creeping or hopping or pouncing, spying on characters who are spying, in turn, on their lovers, or he’s falling ostentatiously asleep someplace where he shouldn’t be, or he’s all tied up in knots, which doesn’t in the least interfere with his intricate dance steps. He’s great fun but … he’d have been funnier if he’d been fewer.
Versailles: Portrait of a Royal Domain, the semi-staged (but splashily costumed, sung and danced) pasticcio performed at Jordan Hall on Saturday night offered many of the same singers and musicians in a sophisticated and humorous royal-themed offering. Of the performers I must especially single out Margot Rood, whose bright, clear soprano rang through the hall with subtle charm as La Renommée in Lalande’s Les Fontaine de Versailles.
For those regretting their messy calendars and having missed Orlando (and well you may), I might as well tell you now that BEMF of 2021 will be presenting Circé by Henry Desmarets. I’ve never heard of him, but I know where I plan to be.