A song to sing, O!

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  December 2, 2008

Since both these lyric tragedies deal with "hunting accidents" (Adonis is killed by a wild boar; the hunter Actûon, having discovered the goddess Diana skinny-dipping, is turned into a stag and killed by his own hounds), and both were first presented at private performances (the Blow was performed by members of Charles II's court), French stage director Gilbert Blin chose to set them both at a "music party" on the eve of a hunting party, with the cast dressed not as mythological figures but as handsomely bewigged courtiers dressed in designer Anna Watkins's lavish pink brocades. In both operas I was distracted from listening to the overtures by all the opening busyness: ladies and gentlemen greeting or signaling to one another, cute children doing what cute children do. (They would soon be better occupied playing little cupids, or hunting dogs in wonderful animal masks from Sweden's Drottningholm Opera.) It wasn't until I started reading along in the libretto that I realized the self-centered, falsely modest lady satirically played by Canadian mezzo-soprano Mireille Lebel was supposed to be Cupid.

Music directors Paul O'Dette (early music's most celebrated lutenist) and Stephen Stubbs (on guitar) led a who's who of stylish early-music players (among the strings violinist Robert Mealy, violist/gambist Laura Jeppesen, and cellist Phoebe Carrai). In Lucy Graham's traditional choreography, the four members of the BEMF Dance Ensemble were light on their feet if slightly glazed in expression. Singers have become more skilled at injecting vitality into Baroque gestures, and most of the singing itself was expert and often poignant. Soprano Amanda Forsythe (Venus) is perhaps better suited to the brilliant vocal complexities of Handel than to the radical simplicities of Blow; still, she's an outstanding artist and a riveting stage presence. Canadian baritone Tyler Duncan was an admirable, likable Adonis, tenor Aaron Sheehan a touching Actûon. In the best music — the final choral lamentations over the deaths of the heroes — a stageful of superb soloists merged into a superb ensemble.

Some 200 years after John Blow, in 1888, another lyric tragedy (or tragi-comedy) premiered in London, Gilbert & Sullivan's The Yeomen of the Guard, the most poignant — and some would say the most exquisitely melodic (even the comic songs) — of all their operettas. It was this year's annual Thanksgiving-weekend G&S production by Richard Conrad's Bostonian Opera and Concert Ensemble, elegantly semi-staged by Conrad himself at Jordan Hall. He avoided the campy routines that crop up in much contemporary G&S and focused on character. And though a lot of the singing was, let me put this kindly, uneven, the acting was uniformly both amusing and touching. The set couldn't have been simpler: a two-level platform stretched in front of the orchestra and a place to sit in front of a spinning wheel. Conrad kept the stage movement fluid and pointed, with his best inspiration in the most famous number: "I Have a Song To Sing, O!", the duet between strolling jester Jack Point and his pretty partner and would-be betrothed, Elsie Maynard. Conrad had baritone David Murray and soprano Ruth Hartt make parallel gestures of yearning and despair that mysteriously underlined the heartbreaking melody (a perpetually unwinding modal tune in the tradition of "Greensleeves" and "Over the Hills and Far Away").

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