BWW Review: LES FETES VENITIENNES
It has been of interest recently to view historical decadence in terms of modern vice. The jazz age doubles as a rave in Baz Luhrmann's "Great Gatsby," baroque fairy tales are burlesque with "Company XIV," and readings of Shakespeare consistently include some raucous background. Such connections remind the audience that scandalous fun is nothing new, and while we might view such festivities as polite or even high culture, they were initially perceived as bawdily as a strip club. "Les Fetes Venitiennes," as performed by L'Opera Comique and Les Arts Florissants at BAM on the evening of April 17th 2016, continue this trend, yet rather than a hangover inducing Garden of Earthly Delights, this baroque debauchery comes from a place of lighthearted innocence.
The dance-opera, composed in 1710 by Andre Campra, takes place in three one act sections bookended by a prologue and epilogue. These three acts are "The Ball," "The Serenades and Gamblers" and, "The Opera." Each act has its own unique Commedia style plot, though here in the place of Commedia quickwitted improvisation, music and dance engulf the performance. The performance is staged through an elegantly simple set construction, as designed by Radu Boruzescu. The set consists of a series of seven large vertical boxes. These boxes are realigned, depending on configuration, to be St. Mark's square, the great hall of a palace, or a wing and shutter style opera set.
Taking place during Carnival in Venice, the prologue presents Follie as she woos the rambunctious crowd and the fight of Reason, portrayed as a nun, to take control. In the end, Reason relents allowing for the performance to take place. The scene begins with the chorus entering onto St. Mark's square in contemporary clothing. They cheer as Carnival, a large red puppet, is wheeled on stage, and they change into scarlet masque costumes. This costuming, which only becomes more lavish as further characters are introduced, presents an elegant unity in the design. While no two performers look exactly alike, their monochromatic fabric, and variation in form exhibit at once excellent study of traditional costuming, and Carnival's social vitality. Much of this segment focuses on Follie, dressed like an Elizabethan Lady Gaga, with an entourage of similarly dressed dancers. Ed Wubb's choreography for this sequence is perhaps the weakest of the evening. The dancers here vogue incomprehensibly to Campra's gentle music. While I recognize there is a comparison to be made between Carnival and contemporary club culture, the dance forms of club culture are made effective by the relentless atmosphere of its music. In this moment, rather than a seamless cohesion, the movements feel synthetically anachronistic, even through this Emilie Renard is spectacularly game as Follie, singing gleefully as she is held aloft by the dancers.
In act one's "The Ball" the Venetian Prince Alamir is planning a festival. In preparation for this, music and dance masters compete to exhibit their craft and personal skills. In addition to this festival, Prince Alamir is courting a woman, Iphise, in disguise in order to be certain she is reciprocating his love for him and not position. Alone with her, and dressed as his servant, he asks her to be with the prince, not himself. She refuses until he says to do so would bring him joy. At her final surrender to his plea he reveals himself to be the Prince and festivities follow. These festivities, conversely to the awkward voguing of the prologue, represent the best of Wubbe's choreography. The force perspective of the hall and ample room and intention for movement allow the dancers to showcase their best work as individuals. The percussive movements of contemporary dance are seamlessly interwoven with carnival ballet. Any hint toward rebellion is done with gleeful humanity and not with any pretense of self congratulatory iconoclasm. Earlier choreography, in the back and forth between The Maitre de Danse (Cyril Auvity,) and Maitre de Musique (Marcel Beekman) are sadly suffocated by limited performance space. However, these scenes are kept aloft by spectacular comedic performances from Auvity and Beekman in particular. Beekman's cohesion of Baroque music with a clowning aptitude for characterization make his performances an evening highlight.
In Act 2's "Serenades and Gamblers," two girls, Isabelle and Lucile, meet at night to catch a lover cheating on them. They soon discover that they are there to catch the same man in the act, Leandre, and just as swiftly discover he is there to meet yet a third woman he is wooing, Irene. Leandre serenades Irene to no avail as she, rightfully, calls him unfaithful. Leandre then sees the disguised Isabelle and Lucile assuming one to be Irene who's come to him. He informs her that he never loved Isabelle or Lucile, to which the women reveal themselves. This scene is followed by an allegorical presentation of Fortune, who rules over gambling and love alike as Leandre laments his loss of three women. The romance scene of Leandre's serenade at St Marks features an awkward but wonderfully committed backdrop of dancers with gondolas fixed to their hips. This is in addition to fantastically rendered character performances from the hilarious Lucile and Isabella, as performed by Magali Leger and Emilie Renard respectively. Rachel Redmond's Irene gainfully takes the rare opportunity in this production for musical performance to take center stage. Later, Elodie Fonnard charms with her performance of La Fortune. Her Fortune has unapologetic self certainty of Elizabeth Banks' Effie Trinket, moving through the stage garbed in a roulette wheel tutu.
In the opera's final act, "The Opera," a singer, Leontine, adores a man named Damire. However, it appears nearly everyone involved in the opera is infatuated with her, and intends to steal her away, including her music teacher, a patron in the audience, and her costar. The opera performance is a pastoral with her performing the role of Flore and Zephire among a herd of sheep. Boree, the god of the wind, then arrives to capture Flore. After he accomplishes this, the opera stops as it is revealed that Boree, performed in secret by Damire, truly has stolen Flore away to elope. This act exhibits the overarching directorial method to this opera. The play of the plot moves endlessly forward, regardless of the music's intention. There isn't a single point of stillness, and points where the baroque music might be focused upon uniquely are easily hijacked by comedic sheep, the bored patron as audience member on stage reading his pamphlet, or otherwise actor clowning. This helps the piece as an entree into the world of baroque opera but it could be distracting for those interested in a central focus upon the music, so wonderfully performed under the baton of William Christie.
The play ends with an Epilogue where Carnival ends and everyone returns to their day to day life. Yet, this sequence doesn't exhibit the kind of hangover moralizing most orgastic performances present. There is a sentiment that Carnival will be missed by the corps, though St. Marks does look worse for wear as trash is strewn over the stage floor. The play ends with the warmth of nostalgia rather than a bitter, regretful melancholy.
Robert Carsen's read of "Les Fetes Venitiennes" is one of joy in folly. Fun for him is a kindness, not a sin, and the members of the Opera Comique are surely game to exhibit such an elation. His staging is clean and archetypal without becoming mechanical, and exudes versatility in this world of 18th century Venice. Costume designer Petra Reinhardt appears to have had just as much fun creating a vivid and vivacious world that feels worn rather than historical. Lighting design by Robert Carsen and Peter van Praet aid the focus on texture and the fascinating combination of emphatically flat surfaces and forced perspective. I wish more moments were given where the music alone were offered to command our attention. Yet, this hope is held in theory and in the Opera's practice Carsen's take on Campra's three hundred year old work feels alive and heartfelt.