Of all the local major musical ventures that have incorporated online concerts into the post-shutdown concert-going experience, perhaps none has done so as skillfully as Boston Early Music Festival. Following an all-virtual summer festival this past June that united freshly filmed programs with highlights from the vaults, BEMF launched its regular season offering both in-person and virtual options for each concert. And because the virtual premieres take place two weeks after the live events, the audiovisual team (Kathy Wittman of Ball Square Films; GBH’s Grammy-winning engineer Antonio Oliart Ros) doesn’t have to wrangle a finicky livestream or rush to get a finished film online.
All that is to say: If you missed BEMF’s Thanksgiving weekend double feature of Telemann’s comic chamber opera “Pimpinone” and soprano showpiece cantata “Ino” at Jordan Hall, it will be available for unlimited streaming for a two-week window starting Dec. 11. And if the quality of BEMF’s previous virtual events is any indication, the ticket will be entirely worth its $15 sticker price, because Sunday offered its limited-capacity audience a thoroughly excellent live performance.
BEMF may be most famous for the elaborate productions it turns out with its biennial mainstage operas, which often feature ornate costumes and sets and squads of dancers. But Sunday’s intimate, 90-minute show was a reminder that a small production can still create a big spectacle. From the canny cast to the crack chamber ensemble backing the action, the double bill offered a feast for eyes, ears, and mind; a detailed program essay by stage co-director Gilbert Blin neatly placed “Pimpinone” in its 18th-century milieu while contextualizing it for modern audiences.
The plot of “Pimpinone” is a classic battle of the sexes; the clever chambermaid Vespetta (“little female wasp,” a hint at her true nature) charms the rich but gullible Pimpinone into first hiring, then marrying her, and proceeds to play fast and loose with both his money and social mores of the time. According to Blin’s notes, this was intended as a comic cautionary tale for men of the time, mocking the supposedly deceptive nature of all women. For modern audiences, it’s just a heaping helping of baroque fun — and the snappy chemistry between soprano Danielle Ruetter-Harrah’s flouncing, fluttering Vespetta and bass-baritone Douglas Williams’s befuddled Pimpinone was terrific across the board. As the mute jester Arlecchino, dancer and stage co-director Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière brought several peripheral characters to life in vibrant slapstick, with a flash of the Arlecchino character’s base motley costume always visible. Those costumes were designed by Blin and Meriem Bahri, protégé of Anna Watkins, who dressed BEMF stars for years; outfitting Vespetta as a literal wasp in her last appearance may have been a bit on the nose, but it was certainly effective.
If any clips from this performance make it onto BEMF’s YouTube channel for all to see, I’m crossing my fingers for Pimpinone’s aria from the final scene, in which Pimpinone imitates a gossipy interaction between Vespetta and her godmother. Williams conveyed the sense of feeling bedraggled while never letting his voice flag, flipping into falsetto with ease; Ruetter-Harrah and Lacoursière lip-synced along with their “parts,” letting their faces (or in Lacoursière’s case, half her face, due to her mask) do the rest of the work.
As a comic intermezzo, “Pimpinone” would have been sandwiched between acts of a more solemn dramatic work. BEMF’s double bill inverted that tradition, sliding the two halves of the cantata “Ino” between the three scenes of “Pimpinone.” Unlike the comic opera, “Ino” is almost entirely a one-woman show in respect to stage presence. Lacoursière’s Arlecchino was on hand to catch a falling baby doll representing Ino’s son and take a stately turn about the stage as a sea god, but “Ino” belonged almost entirely to soprano Amanda Forsythe, a local gem who has long since proved she has the vocal and dramatic chops to carry the entire cantata.
Especially with the minimal staging, “Ino” is challenging to pull off, as the central character and ensemble must make the audience believe they’re witnessing multiple miracles. This was no problem for Forsythe, who may possess one of the most exquisite vocal instruments in the baroque opera world. A master of the slow burn, she gradually turned up the luminosity in her voice throughout the second half, in which Ino is transformed into a sea goddess after fleeing her murderous husband. Saving the best for her final aria, she let fly in triumphant melismas. The way Jordan Hall shook with bravas, one would never know that the hall’s capacity was reduced.
BOSTON EARLY MUSIC FESTIVAL
At Jordan Hall, Nov. 27. Virtual tickets available at www.bemf.org. Virtual premiere Dec. 11, watchable through Dec. 25.