Going for Baroque

fairyqueen web  Going for BaroqueEvery time a Handel opera gets put on, it seems, people talk about a Baroque revival. Forget that it’s been almost 50 years since a landmark New York City Opera production of Giulio Cesare sparked American interest in the period. Or that it’s been almost 20 years since the Baroque group Les Arts Florissants brought Lully’s Atys to the Brooklyn Academy of Music and made the French Baroque all the rage.

But even if the revival has been going on for decades, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the past two weeks were evidence of unprecedented interest. Two productions of Handel operas complemented BAM’s first-ever Opera Festival, a series of events featuring Les Arts Florissants (who have been frequent visitors since that aforementioned legendary 1989 Atys) and their visionary director, William Christie.

There was also an exhibit of photos of old BAM Les Arts Florissants productions; two intimate, charming “Baroque Cabaret” concerts at BAMCafe; and Mr. Christie gave an artist’s talk in addition to concerts and master classes at Juilliard, where he and his company were in residence.

But the main events were the staged opera productions. The festival presented two: a double bill of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Charpentier’s Actéon, and Purcell’s epic Fairy Queen. The Dido and Actéon were pared-down productions, with an imposing, unframed center stage mirror the only scenery. The Fairy Queen, a “semi-opera” that alternates an unsung performance of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream with operatic interludes, was far more elaborate, conjuring up an 18th-century drawing room, a giant spider and a bunny-suit-clad orgy. All three operas were beautifully sung and played—the rich snap of Mr. Christie’s orchestra never gets old—but there was a certain urgency missing. Even after getting used to the odd rhythms of Fairy Queen, an ancestor of the Broadway musical, one finds it engaging but unmoving. 

The Handel productions, on the other hand, were less spectacular but often more affecting. An undergraduate performance of Il pastor fido at Manhattan School of Music had a bare-bones workshop set, but Diana Bostick and Lindsey Freedman sang with simplicity and honesty. At New York City Opera, Francesco Negrin’s production of Partenope was silly and ugly, but countertenor Iestyn Davies, impassioned and elegant, gave one of the best vocal performances of the season.

Baroque singing is all about a technical mastery that constantly threatens to escape the singer, and Baroque opera plots have the same dynamic. All these operas depict characters at war with the display of their own emotions. Baroque opera asks, ultimately, how we should feel. It may not offer answers, but in an age defined by both irony and reckless emoting, it is worth seeing these depictions of feelings balanced precariously between expression and restraint.

The festival event that spoke most powerfully and eloquently about the style and importance of the Baroque was, unexpectedly, not one of the live performances. It was a screening at BAM of Robert Carsen’s 2008 Paris production, with Mr. Christie and Les Arts Florissants, of Lully’s Armide.
The production bore, at first glance, some of the dubious signs of overdirection. The opera’s prologue, which offers praise to Lully’s patron, Louis XIV, opened with a chorus of tourists arriving through the audience on their way to Versailles. The two personified virtues, Glory and Wisdom, were shown as their tour guides, in sensible business suits, pointing out the sights in a PowerPoint presentation. Then a video began playing showing the tourists actually at the palace. They walk open-mouthed through the Hall of Mirrors before suddenly starting a surreal half-period, half-contemporary dance. Snapping out of it, they continue on to the King’s bedchamber, with the curtained bed behind its elaborate low enclosure. When the group keeps going, one of the male tourists quietly lets himself in, lies down on the bed and falls asleep.

The opera proper, then, which is set during the Crusades, is in this production imagined as a dream about the past. The napping tourist plays the part of Renaud, the Christian knight who is the archenemy-turned-beloved of the sorceress Armide. (Rossini’s version of the story will receive its Metropolitan Opera premiere on April 12.) The set has the spareness that is Mr. Carsen’s trademark, consisting of slowly shifting permutations of Louis’ bed and its enclosure—desire and its repression—surrounded by walls of burnished mirrors. If you ever wanted to be terrified watching an opera, I am here to tell you that a quietly enraged Armide’s emerging out of the upstage darkness to the thrashings of a kettle drum can do it.

At the end of the opera, a love spell is broken and Renaud leaves a furious Armide, securing victory for the Christians, the ascendancy of the Western world and, not so indirectly, the existence of Lully’s opera and the king it celebrates. The tourists reappear and discover their napping friend, the hero of his own dream. Mr. Carsen’s aim is clear: to show the way a monarch, and a monarchy, is created, the taming of emotion that is the cost of exercising power. It is no coincidence that this is the same kind of “taming” that Baroque style imposes on singers.

The tourist framing device, which in other hands might have been silly, is true to the opera’s focus on history, on the ways in which the past becomes present. The production, without being didactic, memorably shows how the political implications of opera are intimately linked to its aesthetic aims. How to carefully deploy emotion; the difficult art of channeling our passions into highly rigid, conventionalized forms: These are lessons that we would do well to learn, and they are ones that the Baroque can teach us.

zwoolfe@observer.com