BEMF Ensemble.  Credit Andre Costanini
Aaron Sheehan. Credit Andre Costanini


Pacific Opera Victoria &
Early Music Society of the Islands

Orphée: La descente d'Orphée aux Enfers & La Couronne de Fleurs
Two Operas by Marc-Antoine Charpentier

in French with English surtitles

Performed by Boston Early Music Festival Vocal, Chamber & Dance Ensemble

Dates and Venue 15 &16 March, 2014, 8pm | McPherson Playhouse, Victoria

Musical directors Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs Stage director Gilbert Blin Costume designer Anna Watkins Choreography Melinda Sullivan


Reviewer Elizabeth Paterson

‘Baroque opera’ brings to mind beauty in music, serenity, passion often lying just beneath the surface like the sea before a storm, sometimes unrestrained; elegance, airs and graces. Likewise, ‘Boston Early Music’ under Stephen Stubbs and Paul Odette, evokes a group that plays with one mind and has an understanding of the Baroque in its bones. Expressive musicianship and virtuosity go without saying. Gilbert Blin, is an imaginative stage director capable of packing many layers of meaning into a single theatrical gesture. All these were on tap on Saturday’s performance.

Rather than present a programme of two short works by Charpentier, ‘La Couronne de Fleurs’ and the unfinished opera ‘La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers’, Blin, Stubbs and O’Dette have amalgamated them into a single piece. ‘La Couronne’, with a text partly by Moliere, is in a conventional pastoral genre: nymphs and shepherds engage in a gentle game of oneupmanship in a contest of poetry and music celelebrating the king. ‘La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers’, which tells the story of Orpheus and Euridice from just before her death to the beginning of their tragic walk from Hades towards life on Earth, is inserted into the competition. Does this marriage work? Like many marriages it has its flaws. Setting the Sun King and Orpheus side by side, and plopping a miniepic amongst a group of praisesong miniatures is a bit of a leap. But nevertheless it is a serviceable union with very many pleasures.

The first great pleasure came from Mireille Asselin, whose presence lit up the stage whether as the coquettish Flore flirting with the dancing Zephyrs, or in the Underworld as a gravely regal Persephone. Her bright clear soprano brought sparkle to ‘La Couronne de Fleurs’. In `La Descente', her expression of the text gave Persephone warmth and dignity. Her Pluton was Jesse Blumberg, a slight but authoritative figure on whose every note Orphee’s fate hung. Pluton’s change of heart was feelingly captured by Blumberg’s nuanced interpretation. Carrie Henneman Shaw was a gently moving Eurydice, her singularly affecting death moving the mood of Act I to a more serious vein. Aaron Sheehan (Orphée) sang with everdeepening emotion, passing from formal lament at Eurydice’s death in Act I to inarticulate grief in Act II.

A minor pleasure was to see BC’s own Tyler Duncan in this company giving solid performances as Titye, Apollon and Pan. All members of the company sang and danced as shepherds and shepherdesses, furies, shades and ghosts as required. The short pieces praising Louis XIV’s victories in the opening ‘La Couronne des Fleurs’ were very well done, setting just the right sense of art and artifice, a sense further enhanced by the beautiful dancing of the Zephyrs (Ben Delony and Andrew Trego) and shepherdesses (Caitlin Klinger, Alexis Silver), and elegant costuming by Anna Watkins. Flowing court dress in soft earth tones, with no attempt to distinguish one shepherd from another, or even from Pan served, with the addition of classical-looking stoles, as effective costuming for both pieces. Melinda Sullivan must be commended for demonstrating that baroque dance is no less capable of conveying profound emotion than any other art form of the time. If the dancing in the first part was fitting and charming, in Act II it was singularly moving.

The set consisted simply of a ring of flowers on the floor, encircling the orchestra, which did double duty as an emblem of the first piece and as Eurydice’s wedding flowers. The backdrop, an abstract projection, blueish for pastoral and red for infernal regions, was far less successful. Having the orchestra centre stage sometimes led to awkwardly cramped staging. One other cavill was a glaring grammatical error in an otherwise precise translation.

With the death of Eurydice the performance moved inexorably from the artifice of ‘La Couronne’ de Fleurs' and the conventional pastoral opening of Act I to charged emotions and growing tension in Hades. Despite the familiarity of the story, the persuading of Pluto to let Eurydice go was intense, and the relief when he capitulated real. All focus was on Orphée and Eurydice in their doomed walk, through the audience, when in a clever coup de theatre, loud knocks from the stage brought the audience back to its seats and the performers back to Louis’ court. Lully stopped the performance ( as in real life he may have hindered Charpentier's career), Pan stopped the competition and the world intruded once more.

© 2014 Elizabeth Paterson