The story of the goddess Circe has been told and retold in many variations, most famously in the “Odyssey,” in which she is a deceptive temptress who diverts Odysseus from his journey home while also, notoriously, transforming his men into pigs before ultimately assisting them on their voyage.
Many writers through the centuries have added their own gloss to this fixture of Greek mythology, and of course painters through the centuries have also imagined her likeness. The vast majority of these interpreters have been men who projected onto the mysterious sorceress their own fears and fantasies of the feminine.
Standing out against this backdrop one finds the French poet Louise-Geneviève Gillot de Saintonge (1650-1718), who was the first woman to create a libretto for the Paris Opera. Her second project with the composer Henry Desmarest was in fact an operatic adaptation of this same myth. Desmarest and Saintonge’s “Circé” was given its world premiere at the Paris Opera in 1694. Its North American premiere was by contrast given rather more recently — that is, on Sunday afternoon at the Culter Majestic Theatre, as the centerpiece of the 2023 Boston Early Music Festival.
The festival — known by its acronym, BEMF — is renowned for unearthing completely forgotten works of the French Baroque, and other repertoire unheard in modern times, and mounting these works in lavish new productions. Previous festivals have featured Steffani’s “Orlando” and “Niobe,” Lully’s “Psyché,” and Conradi’s “Ariadne.”
This year’s sumptuous staging of Desmarest’s “Circé” arrives courtesy of the company’s veteran creative team: Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, musical directors; Gilbert Blin, stage director; Robert Mealy, orchestra director; Melinda Sullivan, dance director. And as an opulent operatic event realized in punctilious period style, it meets or exceeds the high standards this same team has long established through its past productions. With particularly inventive costuming by Jérôme Kaplan, this “Circé” is gorgeous to look at and, while a rather full afternoon at over three hours in length, it is fascinating to hear.
Desmarest (1661-1741) had a colorful yet difficult life, with his star seemingly in ascendance after the death of Jean-Baptiste Lully created fresh opportunities at the Paris Opera. His good luck, alas, was not to last. He had a sordid affair with his student. Then there was the bit about the assassins dispatched by her family, and his flight into exile in Brussels.
There is nevertheless a freshness and vibrancy to the music he created for “Circé,” qualities that came through in Sunday afternoon’s crisp performance, with the Festival Orchestra’s sound defined by its tangy strings and the zesty rhythmic drive of its continuo group.
To be sure, Saintonge’s libretto complicates the classic Homeric portrait of the sorceress, making it clear that Circé's aggression is motivated not primarily by a native wickedness or a shadowy lust for power but rather simply by her deep love for Ulisse (Odysseus). There is tenderness beneath the steel. This goddess, in other words, comes across here as a flawed, vulnerable, and ultimately more human figure.
Sunday’s account was buoyed by strong vocal performances from across this talented cast headed by Karina Gauvin in the title role and Aaron Sheehan as Ulisse, and also including Teresa Wakim, Amanda Forsythe, Jesse Blumberg, and Douglas Williams. Gauvin in particular deserves credit for bravely stepping into this totally obscure role after the original soprano, Lucile Richardot, withdrew due to family reasons.
So what does it all add up to? Was “Circé” revealed on Sunday as a neglected masterwork that will change our understanding of the French Baroque? Perhaps not, but that’s also the wrong question to ask, as the so-called masterpiece syndrome is one big reason why so much of the musical past lies unexplored in the first place.
“Circé” comes across as a substantial work of musical and historical interest, and it’s hard to imagine a more compelling case for it than the one being made by this creative team. The staging is also just one of dozens upon dozens of BEMF events that should make this week an exceptionally rich experience for early music fans. After the festival’s long hiatus, it’s great to have it back again.
Music by Henry Desmarest; Libretto by Louise-Geneviève Gillot de Saintonge
Presented by Boston Early Music Festival
At Cutler Majestic Theatre, Sunday afternoon (repeats June 7, 9, and 11)