The Boston Early Music Festival Revives A Hidden Jewel of Baroque Opera
Renown performers rehearsing an opera fit for a king - literally - at Emmanuel Church.
For the past four weeks, over 75 internationally acclaimed singers, dancers, orchestral musicians, and directors have gathered in Back Bay for twice-a-day rehearsals at Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street. They will present - for the first time in Boston - a Baroque era opera intended for the courts of kings.
Since 1980 the Boston Early Music Festival has been dedicated to presenting performers and musicians that have brought back the music of the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical periods to life once again for one week.
The festival has become a respected and universally acknowledged as a premiere event of historical music. Over 17,500 people are expected to attend this year.
“The Boston Early Music Festival will be of great interest to Back Bay's many proud music lovers,” Kathleen Fay, executive director of the Boston Early Music Festival, said.
Festival performances will take place all over Back Bay. Venues include Old South Church, the First Church in Boston, The First Lutheran Church of Boston, Emmanuel Church, and Radisson Hotel.
The North American premiere of Agostino Steffani’s 1688 operatic masterpiece Niobe, Regina di Tebe, at the Cutler Majestic Theatre at Emerson College from June 12 to 19, is the centerpiece of the Boston Early Music Festival.
“This is the biggest production we have done here at the Boston Early Music Festival,” Stephen Stubbs, artistic co-director, said of the opera performance.
The role of Niobe is performed by soprano Amanda Forsythe, a veteran at festival productions and a rising international star. Opposite her will be countertenor Philippe Jaroussky making his North American debut as Anfione.
Stubbs, who has been with Boston Early Music Festival since 1995, explained it’s difficult to stage an opera originally intended for the court of King Max Emanuel of Bavaria who was trying to match the extravagances of Louis XIV of France.
“Doing something of this size is extremely challenging,” said Stubbs. “This is one of the true jewels and worth reviving now.”
Choosing to produce Niobe, Regina di Tebe was a decision made by Stubbs and fellow artistic director Paul O’Dette. “Stefani is one of the greatest composures of that time who is almost totally unknown today and the neglect is hard to explain,” Stubbs said.
The music is also extremely demanding on the orchestra and soloist, Stubbs said.
Director Gilbert Blin said, “My goal is to make the story speak to the people of today, while still keeping the style of the period.”
Between the complex music and amount of people involved, it's a daunting task to bring the spectacle of Steffani’s original into the modern era, he said.
“It’s very engaging," he said. First you get puzzled, then you pick up clues, and then you really get to be involved and begin to forget about yourself,” Blin said.
He relies on many emotions and ideas to take the audience on a journey through the tragic, the comical, and the satirical moments of the opera without fraying the delicate string that connect them all.
“I hope it brings people to a level of involvement that they haven’t experienced often.” Blin said. “People should come because it’s entertaining, but leave feeling they have been on a journey of discovery and a better understanding of what matters in life.”
O’Dette described seeing Steffani’s opera live as, “A once in a lifetime opportunity.” When the crew first heard the singing and the orchestra come together their “jaws hit the floor,” O’Dette said.
“Niobe, Regina di Tebe is a hidden treasure," Stubbs said. "And [the Boston Early Music Festival] is uniquely placed to bring it to life."
The costumes for the opera were designed by Anna Watkins, and this year she got some help from Boston University. Watkins normally makes the costumes in England, but said it was a pleasure to have the university's assistance.
“Baroque costumes are very complicated. They have a lot of details and a lot of small pieces,” she said, walking around her workshop surrounded by glue guns, fabrics, and suits of armor.
Tickets are priced from $30 to $250 and are available at the BEMF Box Office at 617-868-BEMF or visit BEMF.org. For a schedule of events, click here.