Every year, the Boston Early Music Festival celebrates Thanksgiving weekend with a chamber-opera production. Handel’s “Acis and Galatea” was the 2015 presentation; previous years had seen the likes of Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo” and Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s “La descente d’Orphée aux enfers” and “La couronne de fleurs.” The Charpentier duo was recorded and the disc subsequently won a Grammy for best opera recording.
This Thanksgiving, instead of an opera, BEMF is offering two half-hour “operatic divertissements,” Charpentier’s “Les plaisirs de Versailles” and Michel-Robert de Lalande’s “Les fontaines de Versailles,” plus excerpts from Jean-Baptiste Lully’s opera “Atys,” all under the title “Versailles: Portrait of a Royal Domain.” It’s a conceit to be thankful for. We’re transported to Versailles in the early 1680s and invited to one of “Sun King” Louis XIV’s soirées d’appartements, which took place in the winter months, three days a week, from 6 to 10 p.m. There was a room for eating and drinking, a room for gaming, a room for conversation, a room for music. Sometimes the conversation impinged on the music.
And that’s exactly what “Les plaisirs de Versailles” is about. It starts as a dialogue in which La Musique (Mireille Asselin) and La Conversation (Mireille Lebel) bait each other. Charpentier’s sympathies are with La Musique; her music is seductive whereas La Conversation babbles on and on and doesn’t know the difference between a courante and a minuet. When the squabbling pair threaten to leave Versailles, the Chorus prevails upon Comus (Jesse Blumberg), god of festivities; he offers them hot chocolate, wine, confitures, and pastries before turning in frustration to Le Jeu (Jason McStoots), whose insufficiently enticing games include chess, cards, and billiards. La Conversation insists on chocolate and finally gets it, whereupon the two allow, grudgingly, that both are necessary to the king’s pleasure.
The performance Saturday at Jordan Hall didn’t stint on humor. Both La Musique and La Conversation were inordinately pleased with themselves. La Conversation went into orgasms of ecstasy over her chocolate and sneaked a second helping; La Musique, after turning up her nose at Comus’s fruit jellies and marzipan, sneaked a few oranges into her pockets and her décolletage. Comus and Le Jeu (a countertenor role that Charpentier probably sang himself) looked helpless, as well they should have.
Midway through “Les plaisirs de Versailles,” Louis XIV (Carlos Fittante) entered in a wheelchair. And the reconciliation of La Musique and La Conversation set the stage for two divertissements from “Atys,” a royal favorite. There isn’t much story to the first excerpt: the river Sangar (Olivier Laquerre) announces he’s betrothing his daughter to a son of Neptune and all the water deities celebrate in song and dance. The singing and dancing were delectable, however, and there was a poignant moment when Sangar alluded to Lully’s death by inadvertently stomping his foot with his swan-bill crook. (Lully did the same with his conducting staff and died from gangrene.)
This first divertissement broke off when it was noticed that Louis had fallen asleep; the second one found a male quartet singing him a lullaby. After intermission came “Les fontaines de Versailles,” in which one by one the palace fountains entered, each dedicated to a classical deity. Latona (Virginia Warnken), Flora (Molly Netter), Apollo (Aaron Sheehan), Ceres (Sophie Michaux), Enceladus (John Taylor Ward), Bacchus (Oliver Mercer), Fame (Margot Rood), Comus (Blumberg again), and the God of the Canal (Laquerre) all praised the Sun King for prompting the return of spring. Midway through, Louis awoke and sprang from his chair to lead the dancing. “Les fontaines” is a more straightforward affair than “Les plaisirs,” but it was ravishingly sung and acted, and if Fame flirted with Louis, Louis didn’t seem to mind.
The orchestra led by BEMF artistic directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs was both sumptuous and discreet. In the first excerpt from “Atys,” Sangar sings, “It is never too early for the pleasure to begin.” In the case of “Versailles: Portrait of a Royal Domain,” it was way too soon for the pleasure to end. If Louis XIV enjoyed performances of this caliber, he was a lucky man.
Versailles:Portrait of a Royal Domain
Presented by the Boston Early Music Festival
Musical direction: Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs. Stage direction: Gilbert Blin. Choreography, Carlos Fittante. Costumes, Anna Watkins. At Jordan Hall, Nov. 26.Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.