The main event of Boston Baroque’s Valentine’s Day concert Friday at Jordan Hall was an inspired choice: Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1751 acte de ballet about shepherds in love, “La guirlande.” The opener, Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s festive Te Deum, was a less obvious salute to the holiday, but Martin Pearlman and the Boston Baroque chorus made it a moving paean to divine love.
The idea behind the French acte de ballet was that there should be ample room for dance music, so the plots tend to be thin. “La guirlande” runs just under an hour, and Rameau’s librettist, Jean-François Marmontel, squeezed the story into less than half that time. Myrtil and Zélide have woven garlands for each other, and Cupid will keep the garlands fresh as long as the lovers remain faithful. Myrtil, however, enters holding a withered garland, the result of his dalliance with Amaryllis. Abashed, he places the garland on Cupid’s altar, hoping the god will refresh it. Instead, Zélide finds it and, pitying Myrtil, exchanges it for her own. Thinking she has also strayed, Myrtil forgives her, and Cupid does refresh his garland, whereupon the celebratory dancing begins.
You didn’t really need to follow all of that to enjoy Boston Baroque’s performance. Haute-contre tenor Lawrence Wiliford was a powerful and passionate Myrtil, dazzling in his runs on “Brillez,” and soprano Amanda Forsythe, as a teasing Zélide, gave brilliant voice to her aria “Tout languit dans nos bois,” where Zélide likens the arrival of spring after winter to her lover’s return. Pearlman’s orchestra was as rich and ripe as nature in bloom, especially the nightingale piccolos of Christopher Krueger and Wendy Rolfe.
Boston Baroque, Martin Pearlman, conductor
There was no dancing, but Wiliford and Forsythe wore their wreathes, and Brenna Wells, playing Cupid, slipped out of the chorus to surreptitiously replace Wiliford’s withered garland with a fresh one. In another nice touch, baritone Andrew Garland, in a cameo as Hylas, a shepherd whose advances Zélide rejects, came on with a valentine and gave it to Forsythe; she opened it, showed it to the audience, then returned it to him, all while they were singing.
It was such a treat, I missed the 15 or so minutes from the fullest version of “La guirlande” that Pearlman chose not to include. As compensation, we got, before intermission, an enjoyable suite that he assembled from other Rameau operas: the Overture from “Zaïs,” Menuets from “Platée” and “Zoroastre,” and the concluding Chaconne from “Les Indes galantes.”
The Prélude of the Te Deum is familiar enough, but the entire piece deserves to be heard more often. It appears to have been written in the early 1690s, perhaps in celebration of the French victory at Steenkerque in 1692, or the surrender of Charleroi in 1693. The martial glory of the choruses, festooned with trumpets and timpani, is offset by the intimate imprecations of the soloists. Here Garland sang with depth and resonance, and the chorus gave a real swing to the closing “In te, Domine, speravi,” which in Pearlman’s hands both marched and danced.