A satirical, irreverent tale from Boston Camerata
Anyone who thinks that early music concerts are an occasion for sober, reverent visits to the distant past would have been shocked, in the best way, by the Boston Camerata’s superb performance of “Le Roman de Fauvel’’ on Wednesday. The program, presented by the Boston Early Music Festival at Jordan Hall, was irreverent, cynical, scatological, and vastly entertaining.
“Le Roman de Fauvel’’ is a satirical tale of the corrupting influence of power in French society, written by a government bureaucrat early in the 14th century. Fauvel is a horse who has managed to earn the devotion of both political and religious leaders. He is a symbol of moral rot, and his story is told in a manuscript that fuses poetry, illustration, and music into an early version of multimedia entertainment.
Former Camerata music director Joel Cohen created the Camerata’s version of the Fauvel story 20 years ago, adapting the poetic language for a contemporary audience. He served as narrator, while manuscript illuminations were projected over the stage. The tone of the piece emerged at the beginning, when his five Camerata colleagues walked on stage intoning a solemn chant on a text whose translation reads: “I would rather be a swineherd than rub down Fauvel.’’
Those clashes — between high art and vernacular language, between edgy social critique and appeals to divinity — run all through “Le Roman de Fauvel.’’ There is plenty of farce and references to bodily functions, but the political commentary is almost painfully earnest. The music runs a stylistic gamut from popular ballads and a drinking song to courtly numbers and starkly beautiful motets in what was then the new art of polyphony.
The piece wasn’t fully staged but it was acted out in a kind of pantomime. Countertenor Michael Collver was outstanding as Fauvel, availing himself of an almost infinite variety of vocal inflections to convey the absurdity of the horseplay. Music director Anne Azéma was commanding in the role of Fortune, who haughtily rejects Fauvel’s marriage entreaties. Instead he marries Vain Glory, ably portrayed by tenor Michael Barrett. Shira Kammen on medieval fiddle and harp and Steven Lundahl on winds and brass artfully supplied the needed instrumental backing. Cohen played his role to demonic perfection.
“Fauvel’’ ends with the horse running amok atop French society, while its citizens plead for divine intervention to bring him down. In a case of almost-too-perfect timing, the Camerata’s performance came just hours after former Massachusetts House Speaker Sal DiMasi had been found guilty of seven corruption-related federal charges. As the author of “Fauvel’’ writes: “High rank, destined to fall, is a fragile shadow, neither stable nor secure.’’ True then, true now.
The concert opened with a short brace of love songs with an animal theme, performed by Kammen and Azéma. They were beautiful but a lack of texts and translations subtracted from the enjoyment.
David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.