The Sun King dances again in Boston Early Music Festival's 'Versailles'

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Louis XIV has gout. Confined to a wheelchair, he can only look on as his courtiers revel in the evening's entertainments in the glitter of Versailles. Amid the music and dancing, he has a dream about his divine origins. Gout or no gout, he gets up and does a dance of his own, exercising his well-known skill at the art of dance.

The Sun King lives again in the Boston Early Music Festival's "Versailles: Portrait of a Royal Domain," coming the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in performances today and tomorrow. The triptych of chamber operas is meant to re-create the artistic splendors of Versailles at the time the French court took up residence there in the 1680s.

The king's caper takes place in "Les Fontaines de Versailles," a divertissement by the little-known composer Michel Richard Lalande. It is the program's finale, preceded by pieces by two masters of the genre and favorites of the court: Charpentier's "Les Plaisirs de Versailles" and Lully's "Atys" - the latter known as the "King's Opera" because it was so favored by Louis.

BEMF choreographer Carlos Fittante takes the role of the lame, middle-aged king. He read up on Louis' history and times to get a better idea of the ruler he would be impersonating.

"I don't identify with the king at all. What is a king, my goodness?" Fittante says, laughing. "It's something that is quite distant from my everyday experience." But, he adds, that was Louis and that's the way stage director Gilbert Blin has conceived things, presenting the king as he watched the spectacles he put on in the royal "apartments."

In BEMF's biennial Berkshire visit, 12 singers and 13 instrumentalists will be led by musical directors Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs. Produced in conjunction with the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles, the program features period costumes, movement, dance and instruments but, unlike the troupe's full-length, fully staged operas in the past, has no set. Music and dance carry the show.

Gods also take the stage in this pastiche. In Charpentier's "Les Plaisirs de Versailles," personifications of the courtly pleasures vie for supremacy (the god of banquets wins). The next two pieces are divertissements, culminating in sculpted deities from the gardens coming to life to sing the Sun King's praises.

Blin sets the stage in his program notes:

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"Beyond the occasional grand balls, seasonal festive masquerades, and exceptional horse tournaments, Louis XIV invented something more frequent to keep the French court, which he wanted to be fixed in Versailles, well entertained on a regular basis. The Soireees d'Appartements were evening gatherings held at least three times every week during the winter season: on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday."

Courtiers admired the "lavishly painted" ceiling of the nearly finished Hall of Mirrors, which "depicted the great deeds of the king." (Tourists gawk at the sights today.) Food and drink were also lavish. In the grand buffet, guests "would help themselves and find seats where they could eat and converse." Or they played games of many kinds.

To recapture this splendor, Blin, Fittante and the other designers — dancer Melinda Sullivan and costumer Anna Watkins — worked from a large archive of paintings, drawings and writings (the writings "of course very florid," Fittante says). Details extend to records of rehearsals and numbers of musicians.

"That's one of the exciting things about being immersed in the baroque period as a performer," Fittante said via phone interview. "There's definitely an archive of information that one wants to look at and come back to. But then there's also room for your own imagination of how to bring it to life."

Though BEMF tries to make its productions as historically accurate as possible, Fittante explained, "there is always an accommodation for the present time. We live in a different time, we move differently, we have different value systems."

In the opera pastiche, for example, the king applauds his performers, which he would not have done in actuality, Fittante noted.

As for Louis, "we do know that he loved dancing. He danced every morning as his daily exercise." He made his debut as adolescent when he going to assume the crown, announcing himself as Apollo, the mythological Sun King.

"Already, the affiliation with a mythological past, or birthright if you will, was being set up," Fittante says: Spectacle and politics joined.

          


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