|Photo: Vincent Pontet|
Before William Christie and Les Arts Florissants performed the Paris Opera’s production of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Atys to BAM for the first time in 1989 (it returned with Opéra Comique’s production in 1992 and 2011), those in the US curious about French Baroque opera had to be content with a handful of recordings, as live performances were few. LAF’s visits have since revealed further gems from this late-17th to early-18th century repertoire by Marc-Antoine Charpentier and Jean-Philippe Rameau. In April the group returns to the Howard Gilman Opera House for three performances of a well-known, yet rarely performed work from that era, André Campra’s Les Fêtes Vénitiennes, in a production by Opéra Comique.
Opera as an art form began to first coalesce in Italy in the late 16th century; the French had a later start. Pomone by Robert Cambert, considered the first French opera, appeared only in 1671. But soon Lully established its proscribed form—the tragédie en musique, a complex five-act musical drama proceeded by a mythological prologue. The opera’s serious dramatic action, however, was regularly interrupted by divertissements, extended “entertainments” that were often pastoral in nature.
|Reinoud Van Mechelen and Rachel Redmond. Photo: Vincent Pontet|
Lully’s death in 1687 along with Louis’ declining influence fueled a shift away from long, formal tragédies. The ambitious Campra had moved to Paris in 1694 to become the maître de musique at Notre Dame Cathedral, but his duties there failed to staunch the allure of the theater. Giving in to temptation, in 1697 he composed the wildly successful L’Europe Galante, the first-ever opera-ballet. Rather than tell one story, this new mode instead included several entrées or short discrete acts, each with its own plot and characters. Rather than kings and gods, they depicted average citizens engaged in romantic, often comic imbroglios.
Seen as the font of mystery and sensuality, Italian culture was now embraced. One of the entrées of L’Europe Galante is entitled “L’Italie,” and “Le carnaval de Venise” proved to be Campra’s next runaway success. Like the tragedies, opéra-ballets featured ballets and choruses, but included shorter, sprightlier arias, or ariettes, sometimes sung in Italian.
After those early successes, Campra composed several serious operas in the Lullian style. But the public hungered for his lighter works, so he returned to opera-ballet in 1710 with Les Fêtes Vénitiennes or “Venetian Festivities.” After its premiere, Campra kept tinkering, and all told wrote two prologues and eight entrées for it.
|Photo: Vincent Pontet|
Like its predecessors, Les Fêtes Vénitiennes proved enormously popular, racking up more than 300 performances over the next 50 years and even lending its name to a celebrated painting by Jean-Antoine Watteau. However, like all of Campra’s theatrical works, it disappeared for more than two centuries until the renewed interest in French baroque opera began in earnest in the 1960s and 70s.
Les Arts Florissants presented the greatest opéra-ballet of all-—Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes—at BAM in 1993. Although the group has performed Idoménée, his magnificent tragédie, along with the composer’s sacred works and cantatas, Les Fêtes Vénitiennes is its first Campra opéra-ballet. Premiered last year at the Opéra Comique in Paris, Les Fêtes arrives in a ravishing and witty production by Robert Carsen whose previous collaborations with LAF of Handel’s Orlando (1996) and Rameau’s Les Boréades (2003) traveled to BAM. Ed Wubbe’s essential choreography will be danced by members of the Scapino Ballet Rotterdam. The charm of Campra’s beguiling ariettes (short arias) and the infectious verve of his dance music assure that a delightful discovery awaits BAM audiences in April.
Les Fêtes Vénitiennes comes to the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House April 14—17, and great tickets are still available.
Christopher Corwin writes frequently about opera for Parterre Box, and his work has also appeared in Musical America and San Francisco Classical Voice.
Reprinted from March 2016 BAMbill.