Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), American Bach Soloists (ABS) gave the first of two performances of Marin Marais opera, described by the composer as “Tragédie en Musique” (tragedy in music), Sémélé. (The second performance will take place at 8 p.m. tonight, August 14.) This production is the centerpiece of this season’s sixth annual Festival & Academy, and it is the performance in which the Academy students make their most significant contribution. While the choruses were performed by the American Bach Choir, all of the roles in the opera were taken by Academy students and the instrumental ensemble was the American Bach Soloists Academy Orchestra, consisting almost entirely of students except for the section leaders of the first and second violins (Robert Mealy and Elizabeth Blumenstock, respectively) and cellos (Kenneth Slowik) and the percussion performers (Kent Reed on timpani and Peter Maund on everything else.
The opera was performed without staging. This is probably just as well, since it may well be the case that last night the Concert Hall stage reached its maximum possible density of performers per square foot. This was music on a grand scale, not only through the rhetorical devices of French Baroque practices but also through the sheer grandeur arising from such massive resources. Even without adding the visual effects of costumes and scenery, this was spectacle at its most sumptuous.
Still, we must remember the cautionary observations in Aristotle’s “Poetics” that good spectacle rarely makes for good drama. Aristotle probably would have approved of our contemporary epithet “eye candy,” with all of its connotations intact; and, in the absence of any of those “visual effects,” Sémélé tended to prevail primarily as “ear candy.” In fact, nineteenth-century Italy had coined a more apposite epithet for that sort of auditory spectacle in their own time; they called it “bel canto” (beautiful singing). So, yes, Virginia, bel canto was already thriving in the eighteenth century; and it was thriving particularly well at the hands of French composers such as Marais.
Nevertheless, Aristotle had a point. Telling a story is more than just relating a sequence of events. The agents performing those events are characters endowed with personality types through which we may appreciate the motives behind what happens. Even the setting tends to inform why things happen the way they do. However, Marais’ librettist, Antoine Houdar de la Motte, had little interest in such matters. He seems to have felt that it was more important to provide the audience with lots of things happening, even when they are only loosely related to the narrative, because that creates more opportunities to enjoy the beautiful singing. So, a tale that took only three paragraphs in Mary M. Innes’ translation for Penguin Classics of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (and only a single sentence in the Mythology by Edith Hamilton, who was more interested in Semele’s father Cadmus) is stretched out over five acts, during which the plot inches along through “beautifully sung” arias separated by extensive dance interludes. (Needless to say, there was no room for dancing on the Concert Hall stage.)
However, if we put Aristotle aside (as, probably, did everyone in the audience for the Académie Royale de Musique at the Théâtre de Palais-Royal, where Sémélé was first performed) last night’s singing was, indeed, rapturously beautiful. Even the students who had relatively modest “bit parts” never failed to make the best of them. A few of them, particularly Steven Brennfleck as Adraste, Sémélé’s fiancée, who has to contend with her rejecting him in favor of Jupiter, mustered some effective body language to provide a bit of substance of character behind the beautiful singing. (Ben Kazez also offered a delightfully embellished exit by the Grand Priest of Bacchus, whose last words could be loosely translated as “It’s time to party!”)
Instrumental support for all of that beautiful singing was just as engaging. This was a delightful reminder that strength in numbers in an orchestral ensemble could matter just as much at the beginning of the eighteenth century as at the end of the nineteenth. The sheer masses of sound reinforced the “majestic” premise that this was all for the delight of the monarchy and the upper tier of the aristocracy, who could summon such resources at the snap of a finger. All those instrumental sonorities not only supported the soloists but also blended perfectly with the polished choral sonorities (whose members had to keep switching the characters they were portraying). Finally, credit for Artistic Director Jeffrey Thomas cannot be overlooked for his attentive management of such a vast gathering.
The entire evening clocked in at about three hours. Furthermore, those were three leisurely-paced hours. It would be reasonable to assume that Marais’ audiences were given more and longer breaks (particularly in light of all the stage machinery that needed to be changed between acts); so the premiere performance may well have lasted several hours longer. Last night’s performance, however, was not meant to compete with Richard Wagner. Three hours was already a bit on the longish side; but it would have been a pity to short-change any of those moments of beautiful singing that filled the evening.