In the summer of 1685, France was ready to celebrate. The previous year, Sun King Louis XIV had signed the Truce of Ratisbon, which ended the War of the Reunions against Spain and the Holy Roman Empire and brought France a welcome respite. The truce wouldn’t last: In 1688, Louis started what became the Nine Years’ War. But in 1685, Paris was happy to be at peace, and the Sun King’s ministers were eager to show their gratitude and court his favor. Two of the garden-party entertainments created in his honor that year, Jean-Baptiste Lully’s “Idylle sur la Paix” and Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s “La fête de Rueil,” formed the bill for the Boston Early Music Festival’s annual Thanksgiving weekend chamber opera presentation, and, as usual, BEMF provided ample reason to give thanks.
Although each 40-minute piece is set in a pastoral utopia, with French shepherds celebrating Louis as the king of the gods, the two offerings didn’t enjoy the same success. The Marquis de Seignelay had splendid weather for the party he threw at his château at Sceaux on July 16, and Jean Racine wrote the verses for Lully’s extended cantata, which includes music for dancing. The Duc de Richelieu had to be content with a text written by “Une Personne de Qualité” for Charpentier’s more dramatic entertainment; he was hoping to lure Louis to Rueil with the promise of a life-size equestrian statue of the Sun King, but the statue got delayed, the fête got delayed, and Louis eventually decamped to Fontainebleau without ever hearing “La fête de Rueil.” Charpentier himself never heard the piece; it was not performed in his lifetime.
“Idylle sur la Paix” led off Saturday at Jordan Hall. During the lilting Overture from the BEMF Chamber Ensemble, Seignelay (James Reese) and Richelieu (Jason McStoots) enter from opposite wings and engage in a staring match as they circle each other, perhaps trying to decide who has the most extravagant wig. Seignelay, of course, is the host; Richelieu is presumably checking out the party to see how his own upcoming affair can top it.
Teresa Wakim appears as the Princesse de Conti, followed by the rest of the vocal ensemble — Mireille Lebel, Danielle Reutter-Harrah, Aaron Sheehan, John Taylor Ward, and Jonathan Woody — as courtiers portraying straw-hatted shepherds, in costumes that were painstakingly researched and created, everyone looking at Seignelay’s grounds in evident appreciation. They sing of the delights of peace, whereupon the Goddess of Peace (Caitlin Klinger) enters, in a stunning gold cone of a cape, and dances with an olive branch. Woody’s deep, resonant bass-baritone introduces Roman war goddess Bellona (Julian Donahue), who’s resplendent in silver breastplate, red-and-black-striped pantaloons, and black plumes. Peace and Bellona face off, Peace prevails, and the ensemble points out that Louis achieved this glorious respite by defeating his enemies, adding, in a self-serving nod to Seignelay, that the gardens of Sceaux do not displease the Sun King. The BEMF Dance Company, Klinger and Donahue being joined by Sonam Tshedzom Tingkhye and Shaun Ferren, intersperses the mostly choral singing with gracious and sprightly minuets and other Baroque dances, rounding off the entertainment with Lully’s “Chaconne pour Madame la Princesse de Conti.”
“La fête de Rueil” might not have verses by Racine, but the “Personne de Qualité” actually wrote a meatier text, one that affords BEMF’s accomplished performers the chance to act as well as sing. The cast includes swains and country girls, shepherds and shepherdesses, Egyptian girls, satyrs, and the god of shepherds, Pan. Watering can in hand, shepherdess Iris (Reutter-Harrah) declares in a crystalline soprano that though she loves the meadows and the birds and the gardens, she doesn’t love marriage. That’ll pose a problem for her downcast suitor, shepherd Tircis (Sheehan). An Egyptian girl (Lebel, implausibly costumed and overacting hilariously) tries to steer Iris toward Tircis, but though her rich mezzo and Tircis’s warm, sweet tenor are hard to resist, Iris maintains that “our sheep will eat the wolves” before she gives in.
Tircis’s efforts are interrupted first by a leaping satyr (Ferren) and then by the arrival of Pan (Ward), and he never manages to recommence his suit, Iris dodging him during the subsequent dancing. Pan’s costume is the most outlandish of all, with what look like pine needles or porcupine quills representing his goat horns. Now tipsy, now sleepy, he has bad breath and has to be cued by Richelieu as he reminds everyone that they’re here to proclaim Louis the greatest of kings. Finally the long-awaited equestrian statue arrives, in a box, and it’s a beauty, even if it’s only 6 inches tall. The Princesse de Conti holds it aloft as she floats the concluding hymn of praise.
No praise could be too high for this production’s sunny, unforced singing, its comic acting, its light-footed dancing, or the sumptuous lilt of the BEMF Chamber Ensemble. Saturday’s performance was fit for a king.
This review has been updated to correct a misidentification of who played the leaping satyr.
LULLY & CHARPENTIER
“Idylle sur la Paix,” by Jean-Baptiste Lully, and “La fête de Rueil,” by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Presented by the Boston Early Music Festival. Musical direction: Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs. Stage direction: Gilbert Blin. Choreography: Melinda Sullivan. Costumes: Gwen van den Eijnde. Lighting: Kelly Martin.
At Jordan Hall, Saturday, Nov. 26. (BEMF will stream it for two weeks at www.bemf.org starting Dec. 12.)
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.