Send in the clowns

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  June 19, 2007

Director Gilbert Blin crammed the small Cutler Majestic stage with dozens of singers and dancers and kept their movement fluid, and Lucy Graham’s choreography was less precious than most re-creations of Baroque dancing. I particularly enjoyed the slow-motion devils bathed in lighting designer Lenore Doxsee’s red glow (less so the three arch, limp-wristed, cross-dressing baritone Furies) and the commedia dell’arte shenanigans punctuating the interminable final act (45 minutes of dancing after the plot has been resolved, with countless gods spouting banal aphorisms).

Caleb Wertembaker’s unit set — a lofty leafy hedge with a central archway, three marbled steps, and a large downstage gate that attendants kept opening and closing — was supposed to represent not only a palace but also a “horrible wilderness” and Hell (hedges in Hell?). It was based on historical information, but it grew tiresome to look at. I wish it (or the lighting — is lighting cheating?) had better masked the black wires of the aerial machinery.

Still, the musical values were impressive. Music directors Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette assembled an orchestra filled with early-music superstars. I especially liked percussionist Marie-Ange Petit’s invented instruments: pieces of metal chiming to suggest the striking of anvils by Vulcan’s cyclopses (some of Lully’s most charming music); sheaves of sticks smacking of the tortures of Hell. And despite several smallish voices, most of the supporting singing was good. Amanda Forsythe was especially delightful as one of Psyche’s ugly sisters, and Aaron Engebreth was outstanding in several roles.

Little of the music, though, seems truly expressive, or moving. It never made me “feel” anything. It was all more or less pretty, and occasionally characterful (the anvils, the scene in Hell), but it’s rhythmically repetitive and harmonically static. After three hours, I could barely remember a single tune. Psyché is really more pageant than drama. The best music is in the orchestral interludes; the best vocal scene comes late: the confrontation of Psyche and Venus, where the music for once actually serves the drama. (Psyché will return to the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington this weekend, June 22-24.)

On a night off from Psyché, the BEMF Orchestra reconvened at Jordan Hall for a delicious concert called “A Feast of the Gods.”We got an hour-long pastoral, The Judgment of Paris (1701), by John Eccles, the British composer who falls between Purcell and Handel. Tenor Colin Bazer (Mercury) tells tenor Aaron Sheehan (Paris) that he has to award the golden apple to Pamela Dellal (Juno), Amanda Forsythe (Athena), or Ellen Hargis (Venus). He picks Venus. If the prize had been for singing, I’d have chosen Dellal or Forsythe. But all three woman were on to Eccles’s humor. They sneered at one another, and when Paris insists that he needs to see them “undrest,” since “ ’tis not a Face that must carry the prize,” the three rivals turned their backs to the audience and dropped their stoles. A lively and amusing piece, elegantly done.

Violinist Robert Mealy then led a selection of orchestral pieces by Jean-Philippe Rameau, born a half-century later than Lully and the greatest French opera composer before Gluck, Berlioz, and Bizet. The play of wit and imagination was staggering, even in these short pieces from his operas. In five minutes of Rameau, there was more variety (battles, a violent thunderstorm, a delicately airy gavotte for “Zephyrs”) than in hours of Lully. The melting “Entry of Polyhymnia” from Les Boréades made me long to hear the entire opera, especially with an orchestra like this one.

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