My first thought as I was leaving the Studebaker Theater following the Haymarket Opera Company’s stylish production of Marin Marais’ “Ariane et Bachus” on Saturday night: Where has this utterly charming early French baroque opera been hiding all these 321 years?
If Marais is remembered at all out of specialist circles, it is as the foremost virtuoso of the bass viol during the reign of King Louis XIV. Largely forgotten are his four operas, of which his 1696 tragedie en musique, based on the Bacchus and Ariadne myth, may be the rarest of all. The Chicago performances, which launch the Chicago period ensemble’s seventh season, represent the five-act opera’s modern premiere, according to Haymarket artistic director Craig Trompeter.
Marais was a favored disciple of the court composer Jean-Baptiste Lully and played in his orchestra. “Ariane et Bachus” closely follows in musical style and structure the lavish fusions of music, myth, dance and stagecraft with which Lully entertained the Sun King. The stumbling block for modern audiences is the formulaic plot, which relies on stock operatic affects of the period — rejection, despair, jealousy, duplicity and other obstacles that must be overcome in order for true love to triumph.
Marais was no master dramatist (as Handel was), but what his score lacks in originality it almost makes up for in colorful instrumental and vocal writing, especially the delightful dance and choral scenes. At Saturday’s opening one tuned out the flimsy narrative to focus on how artfully Trompeter, his orchestra, chorus, dancers and design team breathed new theatrical life into a forgotten footnote to music history.
Haymarket is basing its performances on a new performing edition prepared by Brazilian musicologist and lutenist Silvana Scarinci, one of two lute players in the pit band of 20 local period instrumentalists, taking on the most musically challenging score they have undertaken to…