Principal bass Edwin Barker was surely looking forward to the third movement, a weird funeral march in which, accompanied by the hushed tread of timpani, he has a big solo to the tune of "Frère Jacques" — in a mordant minor key! En route to the funeral, we hear a klezmer band playing a sentimental song — a Jewish wedding? — before the march returns and disappears into a mist of dissolving cymbals. The last movement had us on the edge of our seats with anticipation and suspense. Was Mahler going to solve his spiritual conflict? Finally, he does, with eight horn players rising to stand. Soon the entire audience was on its feet. What a treat — rare this season — to hear great music played by one of the world's great orchestras at the top of its form, led by someone who really knows the orchestra — and the score.
Thanks to the Boston Early Music Festival, many early-music buffs, and opera buffs in general, have two new operas to add to their seen-it lists. The composer is the 17th-century French master Marc-Antoine Charpentier, who was a friend and associate of Molière and is known mainly for his full-length masterpiece, Medée. One of the two operas is the pastoral La couronne de fleurs (The Crown of Flowers), in which the goddess Flora challenges French shepherds to enter a contest for the best sung poem about the victories of Louis XIV. But the contest is called off because who could possibly write anything that lives up to the king's exploits? Flora then presents flowers to all four competitors. This little opera seems to be a revision of Charpentier's earlier prologue to Molière's last play, Le malade imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid — Molière was playing the title role the day he died).
The other opera is the unfinished La descente d'Orphée aux enfers (The Descent of Orpheus into the Underworld), one of the hundreds of opera based on that myth about music being an answer to death. In their pre-performance talk, Boston Early Music Festival directors Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs spoke about trying to find a way to produce this two-act torso. With the input of their frequent stage director Gilbert Blin, they had an inspired idea: use the two extant acts of the Orpheus opera as one of the contest entries in La couronne, then have the contest cut short afterwards. So a major domo (or was it Jean-Baptiste Lully himself?) entered after the two Orpheus acts to announce that only Lully (Charpentier's major competitor) was allowed to perform operas. It both got a laugh and segued seamlessly into the last act of La couronne. Some of the previous Early Music Festival chamber opera productions got bogged down in elaborate concepts; this concept worked.
Charpentier is an elegant composer whose best music, I think, is his most melancholy, so I actually preferred the score of La descente d'Orphée, with its touching music for the death of Euridice and its awe-inspiring scary music for the figures suffering the torments of hell. But both works had innumerable charms, especially in the ensembles. As always, the orchestra — here a stellar group of ten players, including O'Dette and Stubbs on theorbos and guitar — was the center. And in this case, literally so, since Blin put the musicians center stage, surrounded by a ring of garlands, and all the action and dancing actually circled them. (I also liked the way the supertitle screen covered over the still-embarrassing "New England Conservatory" sign on the Jordan Hall stage.)