With Lully’s death in 1687 and Louis XIV’s increasing immersion in religious piety under the influence of Madame de Maintenon, the court ceased to exercise a strangle hold on opera. Liberated from Lully’s caprices, composers broadened their scope and tested the limits of the art form, none moreso than Andrè Campra (1660-1744) with his series of opéra-ballets establishing a new genre which put dance on an equal footing with singing and abandoned the mythological world for the present.

David Evans, Jesse Blumberg and Ryaan Ahmed © Kathy Wittman
David Evans, Jesse Blumberg and Ryaan Ahmed
© Kathy Wittman

1699’s Le Carnaval de Venise, Campra’s second opéra-ballet, is an amalgam of French and Italian styles in a prologue and three acts. Campra gloried in the means musical, terpsichorean, and technical at his disposal, even incorporating the masks from the banned comedie italienne. A perfunctory and one dimensional, love quadrangle involving a French cavalry officer, Leandre and three Venetians: his lover, Isabelle, her spurned suitor, Rodolphe, and an equally spurned competitor for Leandre’s affections, Leonore, ostensibly drives what plot there is.

Karina Gauvin (Léonore) © Kathy Wittman
Karina Gauvin (Léonore)
© Kathy Wittman
Isolated highlights aside, this story of love and misdirected vengeance is couched in Baroque boilerplate. All the vitality and invention percolates through the divertissements, colorful vignettes depicting in documentary-like fashion the freewheeling Venetian street life and events which made Carnival an international destination in the 17th and 18th centuries. In Act 1, a group of Armenian, Bohemian and Slav revelers swarm the scene in their colorful national dress to sing (in both Italian and French) and dance; Fortune leads on gamblers and gambolers cavorting, indulging in games of chance, and enjoying a Punch and Judy show in Act 2; the traditional battle between gondolier factions for control of the San Barnaba Bridge erupts in Act 3 with much acrobatics and choreographed use of staffs. With the lovers plot resolved, the rest of the act is devoted to two highlights of the Carnival season: the opera and the ball which always followed. The first takes the form of an opera within the opera, Orfeo nell’ inferi, a riotous lampoon of the excesses of Italian opera; the second begins with all the formality of Versailles until Carnival intervenes to lighten things up, introducing the most subversive masks from the commedia dell’arte who fill the stage with lively folk dances like the forlana.

BEMF spares no effort when it stages opera. Painted flats descended from the flies to compose a typical Venetian vista: a palazzo-lined canal with a bridge arching over the water and clouds lowering above. The canal is frozen, not fanciful considering that carnival season began at Christmas. Characters initially approach it gingerly. In Act 3, a proscenium flat with a functioning curtain panel transforms the downstage area into the platea of a Venetian opera house. Costumes, colorful and luxurious, reflect the international character of the revels. However, Orfeo’s damned stand out as grotesquely masked, individual bonfires of the vanities.

Campra thumbs his nose at Lully throughout, but most impertinently by having the only French character in the opera, Leandre, sing in the ornamented style his autocratic predecessor suppressed. He further bucks tradition by giving both male leads to baritones. Jesse Blumberg was a suave Leandre. His Act 2 serenade, which begins solo in French then shifts into Italian for a trio with his Venetian accompanists, “Luci belle dormite”, was outstanding. Rodolphe’s embittered, vengeful suitor, pointedly limned in Douglas Williams’ darker tones, stood the perfect foil for Karina Gauvin’s tormented and tempestuous Leonore. Their characters’ consuming lust for vengeance left little leeway for avoiding stereotype, librettist Jean-François Regnard’s fault not theirs. Both singers made the most of what was given and impressed especially in their knives-drawn vengeance duet. Isabelle’s emotional arc is much richer and layered than any of the other lovers. Amanda Forsythe’s limpid, flexible soprano responded joyously in Italian to Leandre’s serenade and plumbed the depths of despair in “Mes yeux fermez-vous à jamais”. Mireille Lebel and Teresa Wakim excelled in multiple roles with the latter pairing Aaron Sheehan’s preening Orfeo as a clueless Ombra in Gilbert Blin’s uproarious staging of the Italian opera.

Amanda Forsythe (Isabelle) and Jesse Blumberg (Leandre) © Kathy Wittman
Amanda Forsythe (Isabelle) and Jesse Blumberg (Leandre)
© Kathy Wittman

Thirty dances pepper the opera, a few no longer than a minute but most extended and intricate. Members of the dance company and vocal cast were indefatigable and precise, maintaining a high level of energy, concentration, and grace over the nearly three hour span of music which never seemed less than spontaneous. Caroline Copeland deserves special mention for brilliantly performing the original choreography for the forlana, preserved thanks to the Beauchamps-Feulliet notation system commissioned by Louis XIV. Music directors Paul Odette and Stephen Stubbs once again assembled a top notch orchestra of Baroque specialists, including themselves.

The chorus closes the opera singing,“The happy times of pleasure don’t last forever.” Perhaps, but a memorable evening in the theater lingers long.