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Les Fêtes Vénitiennes

Stunningly beautiful and slyly amusing 18th century opera given a delightful staging by Les Arts Floissants.

Ensemble in a scene from “Les Fêtes Vénitiennes” (Photo credit: Jack Vartoogian)

Ensemble in a scene from “Les Fêtes Vénitiennes” (Photo credit: Jack Vartoogian)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

There appears to be no limits to the fecund imagination of William Christie, music and artistic director of Les Arts Florissants.   This French troupe’s Les Fêtes Vénitiennes, a 1710 opera-ballet by André Campra, recently graced the stage of the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House.

At turns beautifully silly, dreamy, exquisitely moving and always delightful, Fêtes is a sweeping, if daffy, look at life in eighteenth century Venice.  Christie and his director Robert Carsen, framed the opera ingeniously by beginning the work in modern day Saint Mark’s Square complete with modern day tourists—mostly members of Ed Wubbe’s Scapino Ballet—with their cellphones, backpacks and obnoxious behavior.

This Saint Mark’s Square was a remarkable re-creation designed by Radu Boruzescu.   Its tall component towers were subsequently twisted and pushed to reveal ballrooms, canals, opera stages and even intimate spaces.  The color scheme, particularly in Petra Reinhardt’s extravagant costumes was bright red and black, making for many eye-popping stage images.

In “The Prologue,” the tourists are pulled into the very involved plot by the arrival of Carnaval (bass, François Lis, making a fine impression even though he was represented by a huge red puppet) and La Folie (Emilie Renard whose mezzo-soprano managed to convey a bubbling personality).  As the tourists don conveniently supplied period arrayments—with lots of cross dressing—they are assaulted by La Raison (soprano Magali Léger who made her point with a strong and clear voice).  Of course, Reason is defeated and the opera proceeds through a series of name secdtions: a “Ball,” scenes of jealous high-born ladies duking it out by a canal, an “Opera” within the opera and an “Epilogue” which brings life back to “normal.”

Throughout it all, the Gilman stage was filled with dazzling ensembles punctuated by short ballets choreographed by Mr. Wubbe in period style performed by the agile Scapino dancers.  The “Ball” section involved a madcap swapping of roles:  Prince Alamir (Jonathan McGovern, baritone, charmingly sensuous) exchanges clothing with his servant Thémir (Reinoud Van Mechelen, tenor, energetically funny) to woo and test Iphise (Elodie Fonnard, a stunningly agile soprano).   Of course, all ends well.

Elodie Fonnard as Fortune and ensemble of “Les Fêtes Vénitiennes” (Photo credit: Jack Vartoogian)

Elodie Fonnard as Fortune and ensemble of “Les Fêtes Vénitiennes” (Photo credit: Jack Vartoogian)

In section called “Serenades and Gamblers,” the two aforementioned girls, Isabelle (Ms. Renard) and Lucile (Ms. Léger) bump into each other in the dark of night by a canal, hoping to confront their unfaithful beau, Léandre (Mr. Lis), who, true to form, is caught with a third girl Irène (Rachel Redmond, soprano, who agilely caught the comic spirit of her role).  After some silly mistaken identity twists, La Fortune (Ms. Fonnard) dispatched all the characters.

“The Opera,” a bizarrely complex plot-within-a-plot involves kidnappings, rehearsals, pastoral entertainments, a feisty wind (Le Borée played by Mr. McGovern) and lots of romantic entanglements, all ending on a rather indifferent note leading to the Epilogue in which all the on stage personnel return to modern dress and modern life.

The performers were all first rate and at one with the wit and creativity of the musical and dramatic direction.  Robert Carsen and Peter van Praet’s lighting helped make the different scenes vivid and astonishing.

Les Arts Florrisants, founded by Mr. Christie in 1979, should find a permanent home here in New York City where there is a major gap in the opera world caused by the collapse of the New York City Opera.  In any case, keep an eye out for their next shows and don’t miss any of their offerings.

Les Fêtes Vénitiennes (April 14-17, 2016)

BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue, in Brooklyn

For tickets, call 718-636-4100 or visit http://www.BAM.org/LesFetesVenitiennes

For more information, visit http://www.arts-florissants.com

Running time: three hours including one intermission

Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (226 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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