The ensemble Les Arts Florissants, which gets its name from an opera by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, presents his Actéon and Henry Purcell’s better-known Dido and Aeneas tomorrow and Friday night in concerts in Berkeley and Rohnert Park. Artistic Director and founder William Christie says the simple staging retains the high drama of the operas, and the small forces are true to the way they were originally performed toward the end of the 17th Century.
The ensemble has performed the two works in Bogota, Colombia and Los Angeles on this tour before they arrive in the Bay Area. “They’re both of the same mold. They’re both essentially short operas, sort of mini-operas,” Christie says. “Actéon is called a ‘pastorale’ because it essentially belongs to this genre of small-scale lyric pieces… There are a lot of parallels, and then musically speaking you’ve got pretty much the same format. That’s to say, choruses, duos, and solos, with bits of recitative. They go very well as a pair together.” He says there’s even a bit of crossover between the two, despite being written in different countries. “In the Dido, there’s a marvelous bit where, during the entertainment in the cave, a woman starts talking about Acteon.” The tale, told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, begins with an inadvertent violation of privacy. “Actéon… spies Diana in her bath, and she, irate, puts his own hounds onto him after he’s been turned into a stag. And he’s obviously devoured by his own dogs.” Rather than have a big cast and full staging, or a traditional concert version with soloists standing in a row reading from scores, Christie has chosen another way: “We have a very simple solution: we memorize the music, and it’s essentially delivered to the audience with very simple gesture. I wouldn’t call it a staging by any means, but I think it’s very effective. The experience has proved over the years that these kinds of pieces gain immensely when they have this kind of treatment.”