Boston Early Music Festival

June 12, 2001

The Boston Early Music Festival presented Jean-Baptiste Lully’s opera Thésée, which unfolded with several dance sequences.
Photo by Peter Schweitzer, courtesy Boston Early Music Festival

Boston Early Music Festival

Copley Theatre

June 12?13, 15?17, 2001

Reviewed by Iris Fanger

The 2001 Boston Early Music Festival, a biennial event that brings together performers, musicologists, and art, music, and dance historians for a week of seminars and performances, presented an ambitious production of Jean-Baptiste Lully?s opera Thésée, with libretto by Philippe Quinault, as the centerpiece of this year?s gathering. The work was an enormous success at its premiere in 1675, at the royal residence of Louis XIV at Saint-Germain en Laye?and equally impressive in its Boston revival.

Under the stage direction of Gilbert Blin, the music direction of Paul O?Dette and Stephen Stubbs, with choreography by Lucy Graham, the three-hour opera unfolded with a number of dance sequences studding the declamatory style of singing, embellished by arias and musical interludes. Lully made sure that the story line flattered his monarch and made reference to his circle and his pursuits, even though the plot took place in ancient Greece and incorporated the ever-watchful Olympic gods, Venus, Mars, and Minerva mingling with the mortals. Aegée, (Aegeus) King of Athens; Aeglé, the young princess he loved; the war hero, Thésée (Theseus), and the sorceress Médée (Medea) were the leading characters. The complications arise because Médee is jealous of Aeglé and Thésée?s passionate love affair.

The eight dancers help tell the story, as followers of the protagonists or their alter egos in the movement sequences. The style of the choreography ranged from processions to charming folk dances to a striking military figure, executed by a quartet of men carrying flags that they whipped around their bodies and over their heads in patterns that echoed an ancient sword dance. An obligatory (for the period) pastoral dance, and a humorous interlude by four elderly Athenians, dressed in costumes and masks of the commedia dell?arte troupes so popular in Paris at that time, added variety to the scenario. A corps of Furies was summoned up by Médée when she wreaked her revenge on the young princess. Among the steps recognizable as precursors of ballet technique were tiny cabrioles, changements, and a low arabesque, along with a constant return to first position in preparation for the next movement.

The singers were dressed in lush period costumes, in contrast to the female dancers who wore knee-length skirts and tiny high-heeled shoes. The men wore tights and jackets that fell well below the hips. White-faced makeup substituted for the convention of wearing masks, except for certain characters in masks.

The most stunning moment came when Carlos Fittante as Apollo, costumed as a replica of Thésée, in golden mask, long curly wig, and court dress, executed a solemn solo dance at the climax. Turning in place in low steps, with hands held out from the hips, the figure seemed a metaphor for the bright happy future of Thésée, the long-lost son of the king. The fine performances by the leading singers, the vocal ensemble (members of the Handel & Haydn Society Chorus), and the dancers were enhanced by the costumes and sumptuous settings, complete with an inner stage that replicated the theatrical decor of the period, designed by Robin Linklater.