For almost two decades, Opera Lafayette has been known to DC opera fans as a period-based ensemble reviving long-forgotten gems of French Baroque and Rococo chamber opera repertoire. On Thursday night, the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater hosted Opera Lafayette’s most recent creation: its production of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s pastorale/tragédie en musique Actéon.

Members of the Opera Lafayette orchestra © Stan Barouh
Members of the Opera Lafayette orchestra
© Stan Barouh

Even though Actéon was the only number officially announced in Opera Lafayette’s playbill, in the first part of the evening we were treated to a selection of melodious excerpts from Les Fêtes de l’Hymen et de l’Amour, ou Les Dieux d’Egypte by Jean-Philippe Rameau.

The refined vocalism and a fresh, witty treatment that Rameau’s score received from a dynamic team of five young vocalists turned the performance of lengthy Baroque arias into a thrilling listening experience and served as a fitting prelude to the central piece of the program, Charpentier’s heartbreaking tale of beauty, vanity, transgression and transformation.

History does not reveal much about the première night of Actéon, which took place 329 years ago. However, the facts that Charpentier was commissioned to write this piece for the opening of the spring hunting season, that it premièred in the salon of his protectress, the Duchesse de Guise, and that it featured the composer himself in the title role, leaves little doubt that it was a beautiful performance, abundant in theatricality.

Even though before the intermission, Opera Lafayette’s artistic director and conductor Ryan Brown announced that Actéon was a staged production, the only thing that this staging happened to be truly abundant in was minimalism. The production offered no sets, except for a white circle center-stage and a few white chairs, scattered around in no particular pattern. The artists neither wore costumes nor shoes. Dressed in plain black clothes, they resembled stage hands rather than opera singers.

While expecting a company on a budget to splurge in sets and costumes might not be reasonable, I confess I felt a bit disappointed. Indeed, Charpentier’s intense music and Ovid’s parabolic plot deserved some kind of sets and at least simple costumes!

However, at the very first sounds of the hunters’ chorus “Allons, marchons, courons, hastons nos pas” (one of Actéon’s catchiest pieces), I realized that I had judged way too soon. A team of seven well-matched vocalists and two pantomime dancers put on so much dynamic action that the lack of sets and costumes was instantly forgotten. The contrasting tonality of the artists’ voices and their headspinning circle dance exuded the excitement and energy of young hunters chasing a stag through the spring forest. True, there were no sets onstage, but the artists’ convincing acting said it all. Even the white chairs came in handy, as the artists utilized them, first as horses, and later on as a set of moving clouds that the goddess Juno was walking on.

The biggest triumph of the evening belonged to tenor Aaron Sheehan, whose characterization of the title character showcased him not only as a beautiful vocalist and actor, but also as a talented pantomime dancer. Vain and careless in the beginning of the opera, his hunter Actéon shone in his vibrant delivery of “Liberté, mon coeur, liberté”, glorifying his youth and freedom. However, it was not until the pinnacle moment of the pastorale, “Mon coeur autre fois intrépide”, the aria in which horrified Actéon witnesses his gradual transformation into a stag (a punishment cast on him by the goddess Diana for watching her bathe) that Sheehan really showed what he was capable of!

As his character’s horrible transformation progressed, the artist’s light voice filled with despair, gradually picking up deeper and darker undertones, sounding like a moaning animal rather than a crying man. Every moment of the transformation brought yet another change to his posture, as, still human, he gradually bent into a silhouette of a four-legged animal. Finally, as the pantomime dancer on the back of the stage crossed his arms over his head (obviously, to signify the end of Actéon’s transformation), Sheehan’s stag, torn to pieces by his own hounds, unrecognized even by his friends, lay motionless and silent in the middle of the empty stage.

I left the Kennedy Center with no doubt that Opera Lafayette’s budget had little to do with the lack of sets and costumes, and that the minimal staging in this production was quite intentional. It seemed like the director wanted us, the audience of the 21st century, majorly spoilt with computer graphics and special effects, to look for answers in our own hearts and just through music, voices and acting discover the mythical and at times frightfully modern world of Charpentier’s Actéon.