By Leslie Kandell
NEW YORK — Music-lovers usually know Bach from Beethoven or Brahms, but they leave tilling the turf between Lully and Rameau to specialists in small seminars. However, the Paris-based American conductor William Christie — God’s gift to the French Baroque — regards those two composers as worlds apart, and with his period-instrument ensemble,Les Arts Florissants, he explores this repertoire’s crannies with vigor and joy. He triumphed last week in Brooklyn with a stunning, witty French opera-ballet by André Campra, who was born before Bach and between Lully and Rameau.
A huge hit in 1710, Les Fêtes Vénitiennes had more than 300 European performances before languishing until Christie, with directorRobert Carsen and (surely wild-eyed) Dutch choreographer Ed Wubbe of Scapino Ballet, shaped it, raunched it up, and presented it in Europe. The performance on April 14 — the first of three — at the Brooklyn Academy of Music was its U.S. premiere.
In the prologue to three barely connected acts, scruffy tourists jostle into the Piazza San Marco, wearing backpacks and snapping selfies. “This is you, now,” is the message to the audience. Suddenly a towering red puppet lumbers in, maneuvered by men with long sticks, in red velvet.
It is the grotesque spirit of Carnival, sweeping away inhibition and swinging forward a fantastical past in a red haze. Egged on by La Folie (mezzo-soprano Emilie Renard), singers and dancers of both sexes don orange wigs, heels, and red velvet gowns slit up to here. They sing and dance, partying like it’s Venusberg.
In marches La Raison (soprano Magali Léger), a nun with two horrified — and titillated — priests in tow. Reason gets nowhere with these revelers, who rudely hustle her off. The audience is now prepared for whatever might happen.
While puppeteers turned stage crew and revolved the buildings’ panels into courtly salon walls, listeners had time to savor the gutsy, precise orchestra, which included theorbo, lute, gamba, and harpsichord. Christie negotiated euphonious spaces between tones with open-mouthed delight, as if hearing them for the first time.
The first entrée has a plot about mistaken identity. The Prince (smooth, balanced baritoneJonathan McGovern who, like most others in the company, had multiple roles) wants assurance that his intended lady will love him even if she is tricked into thinking he is only a servant. After a few masked dances (beak masks are common), it turns out she will. Planned entertainment ensues, with drinks and pass-arounds for the nobles looking on. (Intended is thrilled.)
Entrée Two, about faithless love and mistaken identity, is darker and takes place on a canal at night. There are two jilted girls, a fickle boy, and, in an upstairs window, his first choice. Rachel Redmond, a charming soprano from Scotland, is a veteran of Christie programs, and like a few of the singers, has been here before. Her intonation was elegant. As was almost everyone’s.
The high point of this act is a parade of gondolas: dancers wearing little boats, floating on a canal where stage fog stands in for water. Wubbe’s louche dance-making is like Mark Morris exploded, and we’re not going into what dancers were doing with their boats’ phallic bow ornaments. The act concludes back on San Marco, reveling girls (or ersatz girls) wearing small gambling tables. The puppet surveys the carnival and the fetes roar on.
Redmond also appeared in the last entrée, rehearsing for an opera while fending off a lecherous coach, the very funny Dutch tenorMarcel Beekman. The opera is about shepherds and sheep — which we won’t discuss either, except to say that buoyed by the accompaniment, sheep-costumed dancers did evocative animal impressions. And they bleated.
After the raging, black-clad god of wind descends to carry off the loveliest shepherdess (she’s fine with that, knowing it’s her lover in disguise), the scene shifts back to the piazza for the epilogue. Fast-forward to hung-over tourists awakening as from a dream, and shambling off, dragging their gear and leaving litter and plastic bags. We’re back in the present. Nice touch.
The curtain calls were celebratory, the cheers long and loud. Les Fêtes Vénitiennes, three hours with intermission, was a boisterous, imaginative spectacle, successfully connecting the centuries.
Les Arts Florissants will perform “Serious Airs and Drinking Songs,” with five young singers and Christie at the harpsichord, at Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on April 20, and at New Hall, Kansas City, Missouri, on April 23.
Leslie Kandell has contributed to The New York Times, Musical America, Musical America Directory, and The Daily Gazette.