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Music Review

BEMF looks back at chamber operas past

AMANDA FORSYTHE Courtesy of Boston Early Music Festival

Since 2008, the Boston Early Music Festival has offered a new production of a chamber opera each Thanksgiving weekend. As a series, it’s turned out to be a sound investment, bringing local early music fans a dependably rewarding landmark on the fall concert calendar at the same time as it has strengthened BEMF’s broader bid for recognition as a kind of specialized boutique opera company in its own right.

And one that is clearly gaining traction. Chamber opera productions from recent years have begun touring to Seattle, Vancouver, New York, and elsewhere and are starting to find their way onto disc. Meanwhile the larger operas staged for the company’s biennial summer festivals are finding an afterlife as well, with the BEMF forces having recently returned from a concert performance of Steffani’s “Niobe” in Bremen, Germany. According to a BEMF spokesperson, it was primarily this Bremen engagement that forced a departure from tradition at Sunday’s concert in Jordan Hall; rather than introducing a new chamber opera this year,
BEMF circled back to reprise highlights from its previous five productions.


There was plenty to savor musically in these excerpts, though the revised format was not without its trade-offs. Part of the strength of
BEMF’s approach to opera has traditionally flown from the depth of its immersion in the world of a single composer. Sunday’s program instead bounced less coherently across a varied musical landscape, with a series of different composers, languages, and styles on view.

First up was the Prologo of Monteverdi’s “Orfeo,” followed by excerpts from Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas,” John Blow’s “Venus and Adonis,” and Charpentier’s “Actéon.” After intermission came selections from Handel’s “Acis and Galatea” and from the two Charpentier operas BEMF staged as a double bill in 2011: “La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers” and “La Couronne de Fleurs.”


The excerpts were only lightly staged, but the strength of the performances easily carried the afternoon, even when shorn of spectacle and lavish costuming. Amanda Forsythe was in excellent voice, her soprano sounding supple and gleaming in an assortment of roles that included La Musica in the Monteverdi, Belinda in the Purcell, and Venus in the Blow. As a vocally agile Galatea, Teresa Wakim poured out generous quantities of beautiful, if less expressively variegated, tone.

Aaron Shehan was understatedly commanding as Acis and in the title role of “Actéon,” his tone sweet and clear. Douglas Williams sang his roles, including Aeneas and Polyphemus in the Handel, with refinement and charisma, and Jesse Blumberg sang Adonis with an appealing mix of freedom and control. Zachary Wilder, Jason McStoots, Danielle Reutter-Harrah, and Thea Lobo capably rounded out this protean cast.

The playing of the BEMF chamber ensemble (Robert Mealy, concertmaster) boasted polish and detail as well as an earthy and propulsive warmth emanating from the continuo group that included musical directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs. Kathryn Montoya’s nimble work on recorder was also a standout. One hopes for a return next year to the tradition of new productions.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at