“I think this year’s is the heaviest program book yet,” I overheard in the row behind me on Sunday at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, waiting for Boston Early Music Festival’s opening day performance of Henri Desmarest’s “Circe.”
I needed proof. When I got home, I pulled out my kitchen scale and the program books from the two previous BEMF editions I’ve attended, in 2017 and 2019. The 2017 book weighed in at a svelte 1 pound and 14 ounces, the 2019 book was up to 2 pounds and 3 ounces, and 2023? Two and a half pounds even. If this trend continues, the 2025 book will reach a healthy weight for a small adult Chihuahua.
Within that hefty tome is an embarrassment of riches: detailed program notes, librettos, translations, essays, schedules, maps, and biographies of almost every performer to appear during the biennial weeklong festival. This year’s feels especially bountiful. Perhaps the fest, which runs through June 11, is making up for 2021′s all-virtual event, but this year’s theme, “A Celebration of Women,” seems to have inspired extra creativity in many of the featured ensembles and artists.
The staged centerpiece opera may consistently be the jewel in BEMF’s crown, but the festival concerts are its beating heart. For spectacular theatricals, head to the Majestic, and be prepared for three and a half hours of French Baroque drama. To see cadres of early music experts showing off their latest obsessions to one another as well as the admiring public, head for Jordan Hall, where the well-dressed woman seated in the row behind you might be this year’s operatic leading lady or an expert on a composer you’ve never heard of. Because the daily schedule usually includes three concerts (the earliest at 5 p.m.), the runtimes are trim. The time restriction seems to have encouraged quality over quantity in program planning if Monday and Tuesday’s events were any indication.
The handful of performers participating in both the opera and the festival concerts probably also appreciate the compact runtimes, especially since this year’s event features the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra — a Baroque music supergroup if there ever was one — in the popular 8 p.m. slot on two nights, in addition to its “Circé” and chamber opera gigs.
In the BEMF Orchestra’s Monday show with the BEMF Chorus and soloists, the top half featured the allegorical prologue from the same “Circé,” a tuneful tableau that wasn’t included in the staged production. That’s understandable, as it would have inflated the runtime to well over four hours. It also has less to do with the overall plot than it does with royal derrière-kissing, since King Louis XIV funded the opera’s production in 1697. The orchestra, led as usual by concertmaster Robert Mealy, was deft and expressive, and the chorus matched it in energy.
The second half was devoted to a just-the-hits version of Handel’s first opera “Almira,” which has lately become a repertory piece for the festival. The reason it’s remained one likely has something to do with soprano Amanda Forsythe, who sang the role of Princess Edilia in 2013′s mainstage production and laid down a fire-spitting performance of the vengeful aria “Proverai,” which remains the most popular video on the festival’s YouTube channel.
In short, it was a satisfying way to fill an evening that probably didn’t take too much rehearsing and also provided an excuse to get Forsythe on stage to set off some fireworks. Edilia’s “Proverai” might be her calling card, but it was wonderful to hear her delicate “Geloso tormento,” an agonized lament sung by the title character of “Almira.” Colin Balzer gave workmanlike performances of the tenor selections; more interesting was the dance suite for the orchestra, which was punctuated with fleet-footed leaps by Caroline Copeland and Olsi Gjeci.
The night’s breakout artist was unmistakably soprano Hannah de Priest, a veteran of BEMF’s young artist program circa 2017. Her pearlescent phrases as the Nymph of the Seine in the “Circé” prologue prompted me to add Tuesday’s 5 p.m. “Woman Scorned” program by Ohio-based ensemble Les Délices to my festival agenda. There, too, she was magnetic, driving 18th-century composer François Colin de Blamont’s own “Circé” cantata with dramatic poise and shimmering, subtle ornamentations that entwined with founder Debra Nagy’s oboe and recorder.
I confess I’ve never found it easy to connect with French Baroque music — something about it tends to feel stiff or aristocratic, but not when de Priest is singing. Harpsichordist Mark Edwards’s spun-glass rendition of a passacaglia by Lully, and violinist Julie Andrijeski’s vivid solo in a sonata by Jean-Baptiste Senaillé, also made their own strong cases for the genre.
One of the most intriguing programs of the whole festival was pedal harpist Maxine Eilander and violinist Tekla Cunningham’s Monday late-night portrait concert of French composer and harpist Zoé de la Rüe (c. 1770-1832), who left behind almost no biographical details save that she was described as the best student of the celebrated teacher Daniel Steibelt. The three pieces by de la Rüe for harp and violin resounded with disarming grace, hinting at the composer’s own expertise with the harp. Next to those, the two pieces padding out the program — including an arrangement of Gluck’s beloved “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice” — felt perfunctory. The festival website indicates that the de la Rüe performance will be available for online viewing in this September’s virtual festival; it’s worth a listen.
Belgian ensemble Vox Luminis’s choice of theme for its concert on Tuesday — music devoted to the sorrow of the Virgin Mary — doesn’t win points for originality on the surface, but the repertoire spotlighted the ensemble’s women singers, who provided several of the most poignant moments in an evening overflowing with pious tragedy. Jordan Hall crowds have rarely felt more silent than during the French medieval lament that opened the concert, sung by a solo soprano in the balcony.
As an ensemble, the 10 singers and three instrumentalists (organ, theorbo, and bowed low strings) wove an intricate tapestry of grief in Domenico Scarlatti’s contemplative “Stabat Mater.” Listening to them was akin to looking at an Impressionist painting; when zeroing in on one voice, it was entirely possible to tell who it was coming from, but as soon as I dropped the tunnel vision, the richness and depth of the ensemble’s sound was intoxicating. Following the program, founder and bass Lionel Meunier stepped to the front of the stage to encourage the audience to come back on Thursday night for Vox Luminis’s evening of Bach and Handel with the BEMF Orchestra. I predict a crowded house.
BOSTON EARLY MUSIC FESTIVAL
At Jordan Hall. June 5 and 6. 617-661-1812, www.bemf.org