Every other year in June, the Boston Early Music Festival presents a week of concerts whose centerpiece is a Baroque opera like Lully’s “Thésée” or Conradi’s “Ariadne.” This year’s offering — André Campra’s “Le Carnaval de Venise” — is a little different. Described by BEMF artistic co-director Paul O’Dette as a “Baroque musical,” with a cast of ordinary mortals rather than the usual gods, “Le Carnaval de Venise” offers the French court — and us — a holiday in Venice, with the implicit message “Make love, not war.” It’s a lighthearted evening, and the BEMF production that opened Sunday at the Cutler Majestic Theatre is downright hilarious.
Campra was born in 1660, a generation after Lully and Charpentier, a generation before Rameau. “Le Carnaval de Venise,” which premiered in 1699, comprises a prologue, three acts, and two divertissements, mostly in French but at times sneaking into Italian. The BEMF production runs three hours and 10 minutes, with one 25-minute intermission.
We start off in France, where a theater is being constructed in honor of the arts-patron son of Louis XIV. The work is lagging, so the goddess Minerva descends to move things along. Once the theater’s up, Venetians Leonora and Isabella discover they’re in love with the same French cavalier, Léandre. Pressed to choose, Léandre opts for Isabella. Leonora is not pleased; neither is Rodolfo, who thought Isabella was in love with him. After Rodolfo’s attempted assassination of Léandre fails, Léandre and Isabella propose to steal away while everyone is attending a public performance of “Orpheus in the Underworld” and the commedia dell’arte entertainment that will follow.
BEMF doesn’t take any of this too seriously. The lackadaisical construction workers wear BEMF T-shirts, and when a steely-voiced Minerva (Mireille Lebel) asks who’s responsible for the delays, they finger the hapless manager (Christian Immler). Leonora (Karina Gauvin) is arch and tragic, Rodolfo (Douglas Williams) heroic and tragic, Isabella (Amanda Forsythe) spoiled but love-savvy, Léandre (Jesse Blumberg) ardent but unctuously bluff.
Not only is the singing gorgeous throughout, it’s in character; even the arias, which in a Baroque opera can drag, have shape. And stage director Gilbert Blin packs the edges with mini-dramas, like the adventures of Leonora’s animated maid, Spinette (Virginia Warnken Kelsey), plus Slavic folk dancers, puppets, and a bear in a yellow chapeau. Blin also provides a Canaletto-like Venetian set, with an arched stone bridge and tall, narrow, tightly packed houses.
The hilarity crests in a randy, red-lit “Orpheus in the Underworld” that looks more like “Orpheus in Hell,” with the actors upstaging one another, stealing lines, chewing the scenery, and hobnobbing with an onstage audience that includes the four lovers. Spinette goes ga-ga over blond-tressed Orpheus (Aaron Sheehan); Léandre’s valet, Zerbin (David Evans), crosses the stage twice to procure his master a bottle of wine; Pluto (Immler) hits on Eurydice (Molly Netter) as soon as Orpheus is expelled.
This production brings Isabella and Léandre back at the end, and it dumb-shows the budding affair of Leonora and Rodolfo. Now gracious, now spirited, Caroline Copeland’s choreography — gavotte, passepied, rigaudon, bourrée, chaconne, forlana, and much more — underlines the opera’s political theme of reconciliation: Dancing starts where fighting ends. The concluding chorus advises us that “This time of pleasure does not last forever,” but for three hours at the Majestic, the pleasure is infinite.
Le Carnaval de Venise
Presented by Boston Early Music Festival. At Cutler Majestic Theatre, Sunday (repeats June 14, 16, 18). Tickets $30-$250. 617-824-8400, www.bemf.orgJeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.