French Opera Retains Authenticity

Jeremy S. Singer-vine

Annelisa H. Pedersen ’06 performs as Musique in "Les Plaisirs."

LOCATION: Horner Room of the Agassiz Theatre
DATES: Nov. 10 – Nov 12
DIRECTOR: Joshua H. Billings ’07
PRODUCERS: Emily C. Richmond '06 and Michael V. Givey '06

Continuing their successful track record after last year’s much-praised production of “L’Orfeo,” The Harvard Early Music Society (HEMS) again impressed audiences with polished artistry in the weekend performance of two operatic works: “Les Plaisirs De Versailles” and “Actéon.” True to its origins, the work by composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier was performed entirely in French, preserving its authentic sound and rhythm.

Written in 1682 and 1684 respectively, “Les Plaisirs” is a light comedy set in the court of Louis XIV, while “Actéon” is a tragedy based on the story of Actéon and Diana from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” Charpentier was often overshadowed by his fellow countryman and contemporary, composer Jean Baptiste-Lully, and many say this led to insufficient recognition during his lifetime. But this weekend, HEMS resurrected his little-known masterpieces in the old style.

“Let all submit to the sweetness of my charming chords,” sang Musique in the opening of “Les Plaisirs.” In her role as the vain and self-important Musique who holds the rest of the court as her captive audience when she sings, Annelisa H. Pedersen ’06 convincingly lets her lungs rip to emit a smooth tone, revealing a refined vocal technique.

Harvard Graduate Student Sarah E. Burges Watson provided comic relief with her playful portrayal of Conversation, who deliberately and repeatedly interrupts Musique, preventing her from garnering the attention she desires.

In the second musical drama, “Actéon,” Kurt C. Crowley ’06-07 and Katrin D. Gerlach ’07 delivered energetic and convincing performances as the hunter Actéon and the goddess Diane, who is spied bathing in the river by Actéon .

Throughout both pieces, the talented chorus served as an indispensable engine for the production, providing a solid base of quality vocals and appropriate dramatic improvisations and suffusing the show with an entertaining liveliness. A trio of sprightly dancers also added a nice artistic touch.

The stage events were accompanied by Harvard Baroque instrumentalists, led by Music Director Robert Mealy ’85-’87 and Associate Music Director Edward Elwyn-Jones. The ensemble, which included a number of period instruments, certainly enhanced the authenticity of the performance.

Every element of the production seemed professionally polished, from the set (which included a brand new portable stage) and the costumes, to the programs and unobtrusive handling of the English supertitles.

Most of the members of this year’s cast are undergraduates, which is impressive considering the vocal and lexical demands of the work. The students were, no doubt, aided by the expertise of Baroque music specialists Mealy and former Harvard Arts Medalist, and internationally-acclaimed authority on the French Baroque repertoire, William Christie ’66. Christie was able to spend some time working with the cast in October, thanks to a grant from the Office of the Arts. Thus, continuing the HEMS tradition of strong opera adaptations, the youthful cast and staff here added a refreshing and invaluable energy to the operatic genre.