Promoting Historically-Inspired Performances of Early Music and Baroque Opera
Review of Lully's Psyché (BEMF) & Armide (Opera Lafayette)
by John Wall
June 19, 2007
I'm publishing this quick review to encourage readers in the eastern U.S. who have not seen the Boston Early Music Festival production of Lully's Psyché (1678) to make a trip to Great Barrington, Massachusetts this weekend for one of the last performances at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Friday and Saturday, June 22 & 23 at 7pm and Sunday, June 24 at 2:30 pm.
Psyché was a lavish spectacle from the BEMF. Though not nearly on the scale of the original production, there were as many singers, dancers and musicians as the limited space at the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston could hold. It was another rare opportunity to see some of the finest historically-inspired costumes in a fully-staged, historically-inspired baroque opera.
Psyché contains many of the elements popular in baroque opera -- a serpent ravishing the people, an ordered sacrifice of the heroine to appease the monster, grief, deceit, rivalry, attempted suicide, a descent into Hades, and intervention from Jupiter to allow the lovers to wed, with cameo appearances by familiar mythological characters having no relation to the story. Like the comédies-ballets of les deux Baptistes and unlike subsequent tragédies-lyriques, Psyché merges grotesque and comic characters into the drama. There is an entrée of the cyclops, who dance around their anvils wearing one-eyed masks, and an entrée of the demons in the underworld. The comic characters Bacchus, his nurse Silene, and Mome have extended parts in the grand finale. For discussions of the symbolic references and depictions, see the essays in the BEMF program book, some of which are available on the BEMF website, and the works cited therein.
The two major characters in the opera, Venus and Psyché, are sopranos. Unlike most subsequent French operas, Psyché has no substantial role for high tenor. The leading haute-contre parts are brief -- L'Amour in Act II, the one act in which he appears as a man rather than as a boy with wings, and Apollon in Act V. Psyché is an opera with many small though not simple parts. Indeed, there is such a large cast of characters that the directors held three days of auditions to fill all the roles.
Unlike other Lully operas, no contemporaneous edition of Psyché was published. An edition was eventually published in 1720, after several revivals and 42 years after the initial production. About 35 manuscripts survive. The directors spent 18 months laboriously preparing a performing score from three representative manuscripts and the published edition.
The performance I attended, the final one in Boston on June 18th, was impressive in every respect and obviously reflected expert coaching and extensive rehearsals and prior performances. Gesture, expression, and declamation by the singers were superb. In the one Italian section, a lament by a grieving woman and her two male companions, the complex ornamentation highlighted the fundamental differences between French and Italian vocal styles.
The dancing was precise and very fine throughout. The dances reflected performance styles of an 18th Century revival, as the dancers did not wear masks except when depicting grotesque characters, and the women's hoops did not seem as exaggerated as those of early dancers. (Large hoops would have been impractical on the crowded stage.) Moreover, the amount of contact and athleticism in the dances seemed more consistent with mid-18th Century dance than the styles of 1678.
Earlier this year I attended the performance of Lully's Armide by Opera Lafayette and the New York Baroque Dance Company at the University of Maryland. This production demonstrated that a Lully opera can be beautifully staged on a small scale without the enormous resources of a major festival. As in previous Opera Lafayette productions of Gluck's Orphée & Eurydice and Mozart's Idomeneo, the dancers mimed the drama on stage in front of the singers and orchestra, as well as performing the divertissements. Dances were in 17th Century style, with masks and wide hoops. Indeed, it was the finest performance I have seen of 17th Century dance, reflecting Catherine Turocy's many years of experience with Armide.
The Boston Early Music Festival opera is a biennial event that should not be missed. It is the summit of early music performance in North America. Except for the rare companies like the BEMF with the resources to costume, coach and rehearse the singers, the better approach is that pioneered by Opera Lafayette and the New York Baroque Dance Company. These collaborators have demonstrated in their recent productions that singers need not take part in the drama for an effective staging. Numerous modernistic stagings and semi-stagings have shown that participation by the singers is more often counterproductive. Experienced baroque dancers have a variety of costumes in their closets, and their knowledge of baroque movements and gesture requires no special training. If they can be engaged to mime the opera and stage the dances, the inactivity of the singers can easily be overlooked.
One criticism of both productions was the difficulty of following the libretto during the performances. The BEMF published a bi-lingual pdf libretto of Psyché online before the performance and printed it in the festival book. I spent a couple of hours pasting the pdf libretto, column by column, into an html editor so that I could change the font to a large, easily readable style. Then I printed out the libretto and brought it along loose-leaf. Opera Lafayette failed to provide a libretto to Armide, but, fortunately, I brought the booklet from the Herreweghe recording. At Armide, the lights were left on during the performance, so it was possible for the few people like myself who brought their own librettos to follow the text. At Psyché, the lights were off, but I knew from prior experience to reserve an end-of-aisle seat where I could read the libretto with the light under the outer half of the armrest. I brought my small flashlight to both performances in case there was no suitable light for reading, but I did not have to use it.
Supertitles in English were projected over the stage at both performances. I found them completely useless and did not look at them. I doubt that anyone has done a competent usability study of opera supertitles. Like scrolling text and flashing lights on early websites, they have fascinated the suits at opera companies who have no idea what really works but who want to feature the latest gizmos. They also are a lame excuse not to provide a competent, printed libretto.
To put it bluntly, OPERA SUPERTITLES SUCK!!! They are aimed at the lowest common denominator, the anti-intellectual, Wal-mart American, who is more likely to go to a hot dog eating contest than a baroque opera. The people in the audience who actually follow the libretto want to see the text being sung, and that is only offered here for works sung in English.
Finally, both productions featured the non-historical but currently fashionable (in some quarters) strumming guitar. While this is quite objectionable on recordings where a microphone is placed near the small but noisy instrument, it is much more tolerable and relatively unobtrusive at live performances.