For the past forty years the small town of Oberlin, Ohio, about a forty minute drive from downtown Cleveland and the home of Oberlin College and Conservatory, has hosted the Oberlin Baroque Performance Institute (universally known to attendees and visitors as BPI). This two-week intensive “performance practice summer camp” matches seasoned professionals with students from across the United States in private lessons, lectures, masterclasses, and a series of faculty recitals. BPI is unusual in that the participants are not all necessarily advanced musicians; indeed, it is possible, for example, for a violinist to study lute or take Baroque dance lessons.

BPI co-founder Catharina Meints and Steuart Pincombe
BPI co-founder Catharina Meints and Steuart Pincombe

Each BPI has its own theme; this year it was circa 1700@oberlin.edu / france. The last of this year’s faculty concerts, on Friday 29 June, featured excerpts, mostly instrumental, from two operas by Marin Marais and Jean-Philippe Rameau. The orchestra, comprised of BPI faculty and advanced students, was conducted by Kenneth Slowik, BPI Artistic Director.

Marin Marais’ Alcione (1706) looks back to the operas of Lully and the ideals of the 17th century. The BPI orchestra played a suite of sixteen movements, mostly character dances from the all-important ballets that marked French opera of the time. The variety of movements featured many of the faculty soloists, notably flutist Christopher Krueger in a sarabande and a “Menuet Entr’acte.” Other movements were representational of the opera’s complex plot, which involves various Greek mythological characters. The Marche des Matelots is now known as the basis of the familiar Christmas carol “Masters in This Hall.” A reprise of the march featured three dancers in a comedic representation of the sailors rowing and meeting unexpected villains, and of their defeat.

BPI faculty member soprano Penelope Jensen was accompanied by violin, with cello and theorbo continuo in a scene in which Alcione receives word that her husband Céix has been killed in a shipwreck. The text is declaimed in a lyrical recitative, but is not an aria as one would expect in later 18th- or 19th-century opera. Ms. Jensen has been an active performer and teacher for forty years. Her artistry is unquestioned; however, at this point in her career her voice is in ragged condition, with problems of legato and pitch, which made Marais’ ornamentation a jumble. It is perhaps time for her to cede performing duties to a younger colleague.

The closing Chaconne from Alcione again presented dance; this time an elaborate scene not only with professional-level dancers, but also students (of a wide variety of age and body types) from the BPI beginning dance classes. The intricate footwork contrasted with the stability of the upper torso and highly stylized hand gestures. It was a scene of elegance and grace.

Because of the need to accommodate the dancers on the stage platform, the orchestra was crowded to the back of the stage. Despite excellent playing, the sound for the Marais excerpts seemed muffled acoustically. The sound improved considerably after intermission, when the orchestra was placed much further forward on the stage.

The second half of the program also featured a suite of dance movements from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Les Indes galantes (1735/6). The opera’s prologue and four acts explore the “exotic” natives of other continents: the Turks, the Incas, the Persians, and the North American natives (“les sauvages”).

The sound of Rameau’s orchestra is quite strikingly different from that of Marais. Marais’ orchestra was five-part and string based, with winds (oboes, flutes, bassoons) mostly doubling the strings in the tutti passages. Rameau uses four-part strings and independent—quite often virtuosic—writing for the winds. The consequence is a much fuller, much more sophisticated orchestral texture in Rameau’s opera. The same virtues of the BPI Orchestra in the Marais movements were also present in the Rameau: stylish flexibility of rhythm, clarity of textures and sensitive ornamentation. The Contredanse was especially effective in its use of piccolos and the bassoon in a prominent solo.

Voice faculty member baritone Timothy LeFebvre joined the orchestra for a recitative and aria from Act II, in which the Inca Huascar extols the brilliant sun. Mr. LeFebvre’s high lyric voice suited the music perfectly; he had the right sense of declamation. For a scene from Act IV, the BPI chorus (presumably the American savages) sang of peaceful forests (“Forêts paisibles”), later joined by Ms. Jensen and Mr. LeFebvre in extolling how one can be happy in such tranquil refuges. A Menuet depicting the battle between the French and Spanish warriors against “Les Amazones” and a brilliant Chaconne brought the evening to a rousing conclusion.