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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Boston Early Music Festival makes its mark

On the last Saturday in November I went to see the Boston Early Music Festival perform two operas about hunting: Venus and Adonis by John Blow (1649-1708) and Acteon by Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704). The Boston Early Music Festival presents several concerts of historical music throughout the year. They have become world famous for their performances of baroque opera that aim to be as historically accurate as possible. They collect all the known information about the baroque style of singing, dancing, costuming and instrumentation and try to make the most authentic baroque opera performance possible. If you’re into early music, it’s pretty exciting.

For their performance on Saturday the Boston Music Festival chose to perform chamber operas, which are a bit different than the operas you and I know. Chamber operas run shorter and are performed by a smaller group than the average operas. As is the case with Venus and Adonis and Acteon, most chamber operas were originally intended as short pieces of entertainment for the royal family inside a room in their palace.

The first piece, Venus and Adonis, is based on a Greek myth that Ovid recounted in his Metamorphoses. It tells the story of how Venus, goddess of love and mother of Cupid, falls in love with a young hunter named Adonis. Adonis promises to stay with Venus, but he is tempted to go on a wild boar hunt. Despite Venus’ pleading, Adonis leaves her to go hunting, and is eventually killed by the boar. Venus cries over Adonis’ body, and her tears turn him into flowers, giving him immortality.

The Second piece, Acteon, is also based on a Greek myth involving hunting that was recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Acteon is a young hunter who accidentally stumbles upon Diana, the goddess of war, bathing nude with several nymphs. Acteon can’t help but watch the nude bathers, and is soon discovered by Diana, who is enraged that a mortal has seen her naked. Diana turns Acteon into a stag, and he is quickly eaten by his hunting dogs.

Both pieces were full of interesting dancing, intricate costumes, beautiful music and a lot of emotion. What struck me the most, though, was the common theme of hunting. Although hunting is violent and destructive, it can be positive in that it brings us all together to witness a basic and essential interaction between life and death. Adonis was drawn to be with his hunting buddies. Acteon, although accidentally, was led to Diana during his hunt. As I read in the concert program, these pieces were performed for royal families after they had spent a long day hunting with their friends. And as I watched these operas from hundreds of years ago and looked around at everybody else watching these operas, I found it was really nice to be together with so many people who had come to witness the timeless interaction between life and death in hunting.