Not so long ago, early music presented in historically informed performance ("HIP") was considered a bit of a tough sell - often perceived as dull, tedious, and a little too esoteric for the general concertgoing public.
Not so anymore. As instruments, scholarly knowledge, and playing techniques have matured over the past decade to enable a closer approximation of the way music was played during the time in which it was composed, authentic performance of music from two to five centuries ago is being uncovered as vibrant, colorful, even extravagant - anything but dull.
Take, for instance, Luigi Rossi's 1647 opera "L'Orfeo," the centerpiece of the ninth biennial Boston Early Music Festival & Exhibition (BEMF) June 10 to 15. Considered by many to be the first Baroque opera, "L'Orfeo" revolves around an elaborate, complex plot blending tragedy and commedia dell'arte. It involves 24 singing roles, six dancers, and a boggling array of machinery to create any number of special effects - lightning, thunder, people flying across the stage. The colorful orchestra is composed of 24 violins and a continuo complement of four guitars, two harpsichords, three lutes, harp, and lirone (a bowed string instrument that plays chords).
"It's a spectacular piece," claims Paul O'Dette, co-artistic director of this year's festival. "Rossi is one of the great composers of vocal music in all of music history. His sense of lyricism puts him up there with any composer of music for the voice, and 'L'Orfeo' is filled with one marvelous melody after another.
"It's music that lives in the theater - all the contrasts and all the surprises that crop up constantly. It's the spectacle that makes it come alive."
Emphasis on French-Italian theme
Yet it's a work that hasn't been given a fully staged, professional performance since its premire in 1647. Though Rossi was highly influential with composers of the day, from Purcell to Lully, he is hardly known in our time because his music was not published. "Rossi had the misfortune of living in a time in which there was little published by Roman composers due to the plague and various economic problems, so the music survived only in manuscript," Mr. O'Dette explains.
O'Dette calls "L'Orfeo" "the most important musical and cultural event of the mid-17th century, effectively beginning opera in France." With its unusual combination of both French and Italian forces, it provided a landmark meeting ground for two different musical styles. In effect, the opera generated this year's BEMF theme - "France & Italy: A Tale of Two Countries," which is based on these competing musical styles and the differences of their attitudes toward the purpose of music, from the Middle Ages to the mid-19th century.
"The French thought music should be pleasing and elegant, should tickle the ear," O'Dette explains. "The Italians wanted music to manipulate the heartstrings of the listener. That required often harsh, unpleasant sounds to get certain qualities across, reserving beautiful sounds for expressions of beauty. This was the beginning of a long process in which reasonable minds asked, 'Why should we have to choose? Wouldn't the best of all possible worlds be the beauty and elegance of French music coupled with the drama, variety, and virtuosity of Italian?' "
Since 1997 marks the double anniversary of Rossi's birth in 1597 and the premire of "L'Orfeo" in 1647, BEMF organizers felt the timing was right for such an ambitious project, the most complicated and expensive the festival has ever undertaken. It represents a massive collaboration between creative artists from the United States, England, Germany, Italy, and Sweden.
Festival gains prestige worldwide
One unprecedented collaboration is with the world-renowned Drottningholm Court Theatre of Stockholm, with which the festival shares the creative team for "L'Orfeo" and is given access to Drottningholm's superb costumes, a significant upgrade from seasons past.
In another coup, the festival also has been invited to present "L'Orfeo" at Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass., where the opera will open the summer festival's season. "It's a vote of confidence for them to choose us as their season concert opener, and it says something for period music in this country," says BEMF executive director Kathleen Fay.
BEMF's budget of nearly $1 million is up from $650,000 in 1995, reflecting how much BEMF has grown. It is now the largest early-music festival in North America and one of the most prestigious in the world. "Over the past five years, we've experienced growth in every facet of the festival," says Ms. Fay.
There are several different aspects to the festival: the main performances sponsored by the festival, concurrent performances of smaller groups, symposiums and master classes, and the festival exhibition, which runs all week. The exhibition, one of the focal points of the festival, features nearly 100 instruments and accessory-makers from five continents, as well as record companies and dealers in rare books, prints, and manuscripts. This year's primary site is the Park Plaza in Boston.
Concert highlights include two 500th-anniversary concerts: The Orlando Consort celebrates the enigmatic Johannes Ockeghem on June 13, and co-directors O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs on lutes and theorbos honor acclaimed Italian Renaissance instrumentalist Francesco da Milano June 12. One of the liveliest concerts is likely to be the "Tragicomedia: Festa Italiana" June 14, featuring a cast of singers, instrumentalists, dancers, and commedia actress Eleonora Fuser.
The festival also includes nearly 80 concurrent events by smaller groups from around the world, and for early-music die-hards, there are numerous lectures, master classes, and symposiums planned that will focus on the latest research on performance practices as well as historical and technical information. So at nearly any hour of the day, the festival caters to both the serious and the merely curious.
Fay offers this suggestion to festivalgoers: "Folks should wear their sneakers and plan to run around from morning to night."