In 1697, the Comédie-Italienne almost managed to make fun of the court of Louis XIV but were forcibly disbanded for their trouble. In 1710, André Campra’s opera-ballet Les fêtes vénitiennes tried to bring the italianisme and the politics back to Paris.
Last weekend, Les Arts Florissants brought it to New York.
André Campra, Les fêtes vénitiennes. Les Arts Florissants at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, 4/16/16. Conducted by William Christie, production by Robert Carsen with sets by Radu Boreuzescu, choreography by Ed Wubbe, costumes by Petra Reinhardt, lights by Carsen and Peter van Praet. Cast included Magali Léger, Elodie Fonnard, Rachel Redmond, Emilie Renard, Reinould Van Mechelen, Cyril Auvity, Sean Clayton, Marcel Beekman, Jonathan McGovern, François Lis, Geoffroy Buffière in various roles
André Campra was one of the most important composer of the genre known as the opéra-ballet, a kind of singing-dancing sketch comedy show in which each act tells a completely self-contained, apparently very silly story, interspersed with many dances. (It’s a descendant of the earlier ballet de cour.) He’s standard reading for anyone who has studied eighteenth-century music, but his works are very rarely revived despite some entertainingly crazy plots. (I’d never seen a whole evening-length one, so I was excited to have the opportunity.)
Les Arts Florissants brought their customary verve and wit to the performance, but this evening also demonstrated the difficulties of translating this genre to a modern audience and opera house. Operatic subversion sounds exciting, but we’re seriously not talking Beaumarchais here: this is the kind of suggestive satire that requires knowing the other works of the era referenced in the score and their performance histories. What was exciting for 1710 Paris audiences with 1710 Paris worldviews and 1710 Paris standards of satire doesn’t necessarily speak to us now. Even if you’ve read the history it doesn’t register with theatrical immediacy but rather “oh right, this is that part.” That is to say, a lot of it doesn’t come through without extensive explanation and was, in this production, invisible.
What is a little more obvious is that this score is an enjoyable combination of French and Italian styles of music. The French predominates, with its binary structures and cadential trills, particularly in the recit and narrative sections. But the more effusive emotions and some of the dances suddenly break out into da capo arias, full of coloratura and, in some cases, even Italian texts! This befits the Venetian setting of each act as well as reminding Parisian audiences what they were missing without the Comédie-Italienne (which was revived in 1716).
Yet, and this is the biggest problem with the piece, Campra was not Lully nor Rameau. The music, while it has more stylistic range than some works by those composers, rarely struck me as particularly memorable or surprising. It’s pretty and graceful and light and fits what you expect of early eighteenth-century France, but it’s middle of the road.
I was hoping that Robert Carsen would do to this production what he did to Candide, but he did not. We open with a group of modern tourists wandering around a looming Venetian piazza. The scene is disrupted by a huge red puppet, who entreats them to change to a minimal sort of 18th-century garb. This is a clever foregrounding of the historical performance endeavor—the whole thing is our modern vision of what a certain past looked like—but it is one that essentially fails to reckon with the intensely intertextual, historically contingent elements of Campra’s work. To be fair, I’m not sure how you can realistically stage that, but without it the work is less complicated and less interesting.
Folly then proclaims the evening to be hers, and Reason (represented by a nun, which isn’t exactly historical but works dramatically) is exiled. The other acts, however, are much less conceptual and more conventional, and staged conventionally. The action consists of an antic hodgepodge of Molière-type situations: masters and servants exchanging dress, playboys called out by their multiple girlfriends. It’s all charming enough but it’s light as air and, with the exception of a few set pieces such as series of dancing gondolas and dancing gambling tables, not quite sprightly enough to be more than mildly diverting. You get things like an entertaining but quite long agon between a music master and dancing master that, when they’re over have zero effect on anything else–because that’s just how this genre operates. It’s hard for the production to build up any momentum when each section seems like an independent trifle.
The last act is the most interesting. The story of a singer and her suitor, its metatheatricality seems to be written with two audiences in mind: Robert Carsen, who often does this kind of thing even when the text doesn’t tell him to, and musicologists, who love music about music more than any other kind of music. (Unfortunately most of the musicology specialists missed these performances because they overlapped exactly with the Society for Seventeenth-Century Music’s annual conference, which was in Florida.) This is the first opera-within-the-opera-within-the-opera I have ever encountered, but it turns out to be mostly memorable for a troupe of dancing sheep and one of the piece’s best da capo arias. (Along with those of De Materie, this makes sheep the hot property of opera this season. Wake up, sheeple!!!)
The production, mostly in red, is handsome and witty. Ed Wubbe’s dance (dance is probably Les Arts Florissants’s consistent weak point), misses the mark a bit. Carsen and Wubbe use a few dances for plot-related pantomime and assigns most of the rest for abstract, semi-balletic dance, rarely combining the two. The pure dance is performed by a group of ten dancers, and is pleasant but not particularly spectacular.
I found the singers to be consistently good, though none of the company’s big names are in this production (Emmanuelle de Negri sang this production in Paris but did not travel with it to New York). The women were the best: Rachel Redmond’s sweet and light coloratura in that last act da capo was excellent, and Elodie Fonnard’s Iphise, the lady of the first act, was incisive and charming. Emilie Renard’s Folie was appropriately unhinged and rhythmically capricious. Among the men, I liked smooth operating baritone Jonathan McGovern best as deceptive prince Alamir in the first act and deceptive someone Damir/Borée in the third. As usual, the orchestra and chorus were a pleasure to hear, though ultimately I wish they had expended their efforts on something more compelling. I suppose I’m glad to have experienced Campra, but I don’t think this counts as a rediscovery.
If you’re interested in Campra, I highly recommend you read Georgia Cowart’s article on this piece (JSTOR).