Oh my God, opera.
Why does it do that thing it does? You sit there in this profoundly artificial setting. A whole brilliant orchestra of black-clad seething dimly lit beings creates a sound. Other beings in bright costumes pose and scamper on stage, then open their mouths and share their secrets in a carefully constructed musical shape. Artifice is everywhere, immediately perceptible. And yet right behind that artifice is a reality so raw and rare and beautiful that we can only access it through this crazy medium.
And this week is special for opera because when the Boston Early Music Festival touches down, the form takes another quantum leap. On the one hand, the formal nature of baroque opera puts a stamp on the whole process that is almost impossible to ignore. On the other, that set of exquisitely beautiful constraints turns the artistry of the folks "wearing" them into something pulsing with freedom and wit, something truly unforgettable.
Take the BEMF "big opera" for example, Steffani's Orlando. For nearly four hours, we are wrenched around from one exotic tableau to another via da capo aria. Oh, a hippogriff! Oh, a wizard! Oh, we're in China! Oh, we're in disguise! Oh, fireflies! Oh, we're in prison! Oh, we're in an enchanted castle! Because of course. All of that color and interest is there to pull amazing music out of the characters, and it does - music of searing loss, subtle calculation, madness and sanity, and always humor, waiting close by to touch the situation any moment (literally personified in Zachary Wilder's jaw-dropping presentation of the demon Brunello, pictured above, who pops up everywhere and, as he says, "chases himself all over the place.")
When Amanda Forsythe and Christopher Lowry sing that searching duet at the beginning of Act 2, scanning the universe for their lost loves, orbited by solo instruments, you just give it all up and freely weep. When the characters find themselves trapped in that enchanted castle which is actually their mind, peopled with baroque dancers playing automatons, you just give it all up and let yourself get pulled all the way in. When Aaron Sheehan's astounding Orlando, after his madness and raging, pulls himself through the dark muck of misery back to a sanity he can finally bear to embrace, you just give it all up and trudge alongside him towards that fragile light.
Oh, did I mention that this is one of three operas going up this week? No? Silly me. That thing about BEMF week being special? Yeah. So, there are two more! I've had the good fortune of being involved in all three productions as they've come into being, which is also probably why you haven't seen me in weeks and I don't even remember what sleep is anymore.
The second opera is one I personally feel very close to. It's going up this afternoon, and it's the production featuring the BEMF Young Artists: Handel's Orlando. As in the Steffani, the action focuses in around the celebrated knight who loses his mind to love. But the setting makes for a tighter - and more tightly wound - tale; lots of the action takes place around a farmhouse, there's a cute shepherdess who keeps dreaming about the power of love while everyone else is dealing with its radioactive fallout, a somber wizard who saves the day by healing Orlando's mind to the beautiful strains of a viola duet, YES A VIOLA DUET, THANK YOU HANDEL, YOU'RE A GOOD GUY.
What's particularly special about this opera is that everyone involved is basically at the beginning of their career. You're hearing sparks of energy that are starting to catch fire and burn more steadily, and it's all super hot and great. Also special: for the first time at BEMF, there's a group of instrumental Young Artists who make up the orchestra which I have the extreme pleasure of leading (along with Jeff Grossman directing from the keyboard) and which is sounding, I'm just gonna say, absolutely fabulous. If you are free at three, toddle down to Emmanuel Church and come take this in, it will be a trip!
The last of the three operas is more of a collection of divertissements - and yet manages to be somehow the warmest and friendliest of all. This is the Versailles portrait, happening on Saturday night at Jordan Hall. The action is all at court; in the chambers, for Charpentier's ridiculously funny "Les Plaisirs" and then out in the garden for Delalande's exquisite "Les Fontaines." Here the real poetry is in the intimate interaction between the many characters (and musicians) sharing the stage. Louis himself is present in the action as a listener and an object of affection, an aging king drowsily sitting in a wheelchair taking in the scene until - in a moment which is just heartbreakingly good - the music of the fountains restores him to vibrancy and he takes over the stage and the action in a display of utter brilliance. I can't get enough of this king. And as a stand-in for us, the members of the audience, he reminds us of a truth which for me is at the heart of BEMF week.
It's OK to nap a little.
Don't worry, the utter gorgeousness of the music will wake you up soon enough, and before you know it, you'll be dancing to a rockin' Chaconne.
Hope to see you at one, two, or three of these immensely gorgeous shows!