The Bigger Picture

Flip Your Wig: The BAM Opera Festival

by Bob Moses

Those anticipating a prim evening of courtly amusements at the opening night of BAM's inaugural Opera Festival had their powdered wigs blown back.

As the lights went down, the aisles of BAM's Harvey Theater filled with the ruddy cries of Actéon's hunting party as the chorus of William Christie's Les Arts Florissant mounted the stage, lounged on patron's armrests, hollering as they stomped by, a rough-hewn throng in the full flush of coloring the hills with the blood of their prey. The double bill of Marc-Antoine Charpentier's pastoral Actéon and Henry Purcell's English-opera landmark Dido and Aeneas marched briskly through scenes of a deity's unbound anger, royal loss and betrayal, and supernatural mischief-making. For thirty years, Christie and his ensemble have presented the Baroque repertoire with its characteristic formal dignity — infused with the passions of a bloody, tumultuous era.
Henry PurcellHenry Purcell
Actéon (1689) presents the cautionary tale of Theban king Cadmus's grandson (and thereby a presumably lusty descendant of Mars and Venus) who happens upon the virgin goddess Diana and her nymphs bathing in a misty pool deep in a woodland glade. The furiously blushing goddess of the hunt turns hunter to prey, transforming Actéon to a stag, pursued and slaughtered by his own hounds and companions. The bewildered Actéon marvels at his fate, so quickly fallen from the day's triumph to loss of dignity, then speech, then life; Ovid questioned Diana's revenge as well, noting that "… there is nothing sinful in losing one's way." We're left to wonder if the asymmetrical response has as much to do with a quickening of desire in Diana, a suffusing warmth that vividly conflicts with her chilly chastity.

Actéon's tragedy appears in six lines of Nahum Tate's libretto for Dido and Aeneas (1685), as the royal lovers and their retinue pause at a grove before distant thunder and gathering clouds send the party back to Carthage. The distant echo of violent death at the whim of a god presages the arrival of a pretend Mercury bearing false orders from Jove for Aeneas to break off his married idyll in Carthage and return to re-establish Troy - the machinations of an evil sorceress intent on destroying Carthage. Aeneas's reluctant departure leads to bitter reproaches and the demise of Dido, concluding with Purcell's most famous aria,"When I am laid in the earth… ."
William ChristieWilliam Christie

After the performance, I had the opportunity to spend a few moments with Maestro Christie, who curated the Festival, marking a return to the house he first visited in 1989 with a renowned production of Lully's Atys. Christie told me he had been pairing these two pieces for more than 20 years. When I asked about a deeper connection, beyond those six lines, he smiled and simply said, "James II." And there lies another story of "supernatural" influence, bloody banishment and ill-fated return, foreign meddling, and a penitent exile with many long days to rue the past.

James II (1633 - 1701), seen fully wigged in painting at top, was the last Catholic king of England, and the son of Charles I, royal victim of the English Civil War that ushered in Cromwell's sere Protestantism and the English republic. Young James escaped from imprisonment in Saint James Palace and made his way via Holland to France, then ruled by his cousin, Louis XIV. He and his brother, who became Charles II in 1660 (and who, upon restoration, dug up Cromwell's body, hung it in chains, and displayed the head on a pike outside Westminster), served in both the French and Spanish armies (and thus on both sides of the long-running conflict). James was exposed to Roman Catholicism in France, and he and his first wife, Anne, are believed to have secretly taken the Roman communion in 1668. Their conversion became known when James refused to abide by the Test Act and renounce Catholic practices as "superstitious and idolatrous."

The presence of a potential Catholic heir to the throne sat uneasily in a Protestant society that paraded and burned effigies of the pope, priests and nuns on the anniversary of Elizabeth I's accession. Suspicion of James's French and religious influences was heightened after the Popish Plot alarm, which proposed that Jesuits planned to kill the childless Charles II and install James. The conspiracy tale ignited a frenzy of anti-Catholic activity. Parliament repeatedly tried to pass an Exclusion Act blocking James's accession to the throne; Charles dissolved the Parliaments and sent James away. James became king upon Charles II's death in 1685, marking his brief rule with absolutist actions enforced by a large standing army, and an ill-fated attempt to introduce religious pluralism.

The Anglican establishment and Parliament were prepared to tolerate James's re-introduction of Catholicism as long as his heirs were the Protestant daughters born before his conversion. When his second wife, Mary of Modena, produced a Catholic heir, the tolerance ended. In 1688, William of Orange and his wife, Mary (James's daughter), were invited to invade by a group of Protestant nobles and the Glorious Revolution commenced. James fled, was captured, and eventually allowed to escape to the embrace of Louis XIV. He attempted to regain the throne via Ireland, was defeated at the Battle of the Boyne, returned to France in 1690, and lived out his life in a royally privileged version of penitence.

A time of deep suspicion bordering on hysteria, revolution and restoration within a generation, bloody regicide and revenge: did Purcell's Dido reflect his world in its foreboding and bitterness? His librettist Tate had earlier equated Aeneas and James II; sorcery and witches were familiar allegorical references to Catholicism. A king undone by foreign witchcraft, sent across the waters, the bitter undoing of those (and the country) he loves… the narrative wouldn't seem hard to parse by Purcell's audience.
M-A CharpentierM-A Charpentier
In the rather libertine Restoration court, James's cosmopolitan influence may have extended beyond the religious or political. Perhaps Purcell (and, in an earlier work, his teacher, John Blow) was emboldened to experiment in Dido with the entirely-sung narrative, an Italian form. James would have been exposed to Louis XIV's taste in music during his sojourns in France. An Italophile, Louis installed his friend, the Italian-born Jean-Baptiste Lully, as court composer. James, while in exile, employed Italian musicians and music master. This taste for Italian style was shared by Louis's cousin, Mme DeGuise, and the elder Mlle DeGuise, who employed and housed Charpentier. The young composer had spent time in Rome in the late 1660s, returning to France with an ear for Italian composition. The protection of Mme De Guise allowed Charpentier to circumvent Lully's monopoly at court and produce chamber operas such as Actéon and music for theater. Charpentier in his later life turned almost exclusively to sacred music, becoming the music master for the Jesuits in 1698. James also relied increasingly on his devotion at the last. It's easy to imagine the bereft monarch-without-a-kingdom taking comfort in a Charpentier mass at Sainte-Chappelle.

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