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Opera Receives First Performances Outside Europe in 300 Years

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Artistic and Music Director of the American Bach Soloists Jeffrey Thomas. (Photo by Gene Kosoy/American Bach Soloists)

This summer, Bay Area audiences will get the chance to witness an opera that hasn’t been seen outside of Europe since the 18th century. Marin Marais’ Sémélé — based on Ovid’s myth about the origins of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine — includes scenes of drunkenness, love, infidelity, jealousy, and fiery immolation.

The 1709 opera is part of the sixth American Bach Soloists (ABS) Festival and Academy — an annual event dedicated to historically informed performances of Baroque music. Conductor and ABS co-founder Jeffrey Thomas leads concerts focused on Bach’s French contemporaries at the court of Versailles and answers some questions about the programming this year.

American Bach Soloists Festival Orchestra.
American Bach Soloists Festival Orchestra. (Photo courtesy of Gene Kosoy)

Why did American Bach Soloists decide to feature Marin Marais’ Sémélé in the festival this year?

Each festival season, we have had a focus of some sort on a type of music or a particular national style. Whereas we have performed music from the French Baroque before, both during regular ABS seasons and at the Festival (Rameau’s Pigmalion in July 2012 and works by Charpentier and Couperin during regular seasons), we hadn’t yet chosen that theme as a subject. The music and the culture of the period is, of course, extravagant as one would expect considering the opulent and rich tastes of Louis XIV and XV, so it seemed like a wonderful idea. Additionally, for the benefit of our Academy participants, studies of performance practice of the French Baroque are essential. A large part of the Baroque repertoire stems from this background, and it is quite different in many aspects from the music of all other national schools at the time.

Why has it taken so long for Sémélé to be performed outside of Europe?


The revival of interest in Sémélé, like the revival of interest in its composer, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Since the first modern performances in France in the mid-2000s, the complete opera is only now leaving the continent. Its dances have been performed in the United States and recorded by a Canadian baroque ensemble (Montreal Baroque Orchestra), but the ABS Festival presents the first opportunity to experience this gorgeous opera live without going to France. Other organizations and conductors have performed and recorded lots of Lully and Rameau, the two major figures in French Baroque opera, and Marais – smack in the middle – is a bridge. Transitional figures are always interesting and Marais provides an example of what the tragedie en musique [musical tragedy] was like after Lully’s death and before the innovations of Rameau.

Marin Marais
Marin Marais painted by André Bouys in 1704. (Courtesy of American Bach Soloists)


Marin Marais was a master viol player and an accomplished composer for that instrument. How did he come to briefly direct the Paris Opera and present his own operas?

The stronghold that Jean-Baptiste Lully held on the Paris Opera for many years was so significant that it took a series of composers – who had already been a part of organization – to fill in for a good number of years following Lully’s death. Marais was one of those.

This opera, which has a prologue and five acts, is based on a mere 62 lines in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Book III:253-315). How long is the opera?

There is about 2 hours and 20 minutes of music. The Prologue is substantial — about 30 minutes. In performance, the first half (Prologue—Act I—Act II) will be about 1:20, and the second half (Act III—Act IV—Act V) will be about one hour.

There are two other Baroque operas based on the Semele myth, John Eccles’ 1707 work and Handel’s piece from 1742. What makes the story so compelling?

I think that is about the power that some hold over others, but that seems to be an omnipresent theme in mythology in general. I don’t think that there is anything terribly unique about this particular story in terms of its relevance or content, but it is one that has been told in a number of ways. There are the more polite versions (as we find in the Marais setting) that present the events as a matter of love and attractions, and there are less polite versions that tell us of the harshness of tyrannical dominance.

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