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Carolyn Sampson
Carolyn Sampson performs the title role of "Psyche," presented by the Boston Early Music Festival. (Andre Costantini)
OPERA REVIEW

Strolling in a garden of the ancient gods

Operas, too, like cities and their monuments, get buried in the rubble of history. Excavation requires years of digging. The Boston Early Music Festival has made a cherished tradition of unearthing forgotten works, dusting them off, and trying to restore their original vibrant colors.

There is much to admire in the most recent feat of excavation, Jean-Baptiste Lully's 1678 opera "Psyché," which received its North American premiere on Tuesday night at the Cutler Majestic Theatre as the main-stage production of the 14th biennial Boston Early Music Festival. It is a picturesque wedding of music and dance wrapped around a mythical story, and a meditation on the joys and perils of love and attachment. The writer Romain Rolland once compared Lully's art to "classic tragedy and the noble garden of Versailles" and indeed, with its beautiful vistas and slow pacing over the course of nearly 3 1/2 hours, experiencing "Psyché" is akin to taking a very leisurely stroll in an exquisitely tended royal garden.

Of course, Versailles was not even completed when "Psyché" first came to life in 1671 as a ballet written for the court of Louis XIV, based on Moliere's adaptation of the story of the classical myth of Psyché and Cupid. In 1678, Lully and librettist Thomas Corneille refashioned it as a full-fledged opera based on the travails of its title character, the most beautiful mortal on earth.

Psyché inspires the jealousy and vengeful anger of Venus, especially when the goddess's own son Cupid, here called L'Amour, falls in love with Psyché after warning that she must never know his true identity. Provoked by Venus, Psyché unmasks her lover and he vanishes; she is sent on a grueling journey to the underworld. Jupiter ultimately intervenes and grants Psyché immortality so she and L'Amour can be wed in the heavens. The final act feels at times like a boisterous distant cousin of Plato's "Symposium," with the gods and semi-deities making merry and holding forth on the true meaning of love and its effects on the world.

BEMF artistic directors Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs meticulously reconstructed the score of "Psyché" from several surviving editions, and though the resulting music may not cast dramatic new light on Lully or the French Baroque, it is generous in melody, rhythmically vital, and full of assured and beautiful vocal writing. The performance of BEMF's superb period instrument orchestra on Tuesday night was a pleasure to hear -- precise in detail despite the absence of a conductor, and buzzing with energy thanks to vigorous string playing and enjoyably clangorous percussion, but also due to the unflappable continuo group anchored by O'Dette and Stubbs.

The veteran production team, headed by stage director Gilbert Blin, sought an elusive wedding of modern vitality and period accuracy. They largely succeeded despite a libretto that might have easily steered the production toward static pageantry. It helped that the opera, with its roots in ballet, is consistently propelled by dance, and the sparkling choreography of Lucy Graham rendered traditional forms with freshness and grace. The scene with six dancing cyclopses was particularly charming. So were the dazzling costumes of Anna Watkins, who produced enough eye-catching apparel to clothe a small village. Caleb Wertenbaker's period sets and his stage machinery that lofted singers up and down from the heavens was simple and effective. Of all the period touches, it is the vocabulary of ornate hand gestures that may strike some modern viewers as esoteric, or distancing. A few singers made them look natural, but others looked uncomfortable.

The British soprano Carolyn Sampson gave a radiant and pure-voiced performance as Psyché, singing fluidly with a well-supported tone that conveyed her character's innocence and vulnerability. Karina Gauvin was vocally commanding and dramatically persuasive as Venus, and a fine group of mostly younger singers covered many of the smaller roles, including Colin Balzer, Olivier Laquerre, Mireille Lebel, Amanda Forsythe, Aaron Sheehan, Yulia van Doren, Teresa Wakim, Jason McStoots, Aaron Engebreth, Erica Schuller, and Matthew Shaw. Four members of the PALS Children's Chorus joined the ranks of the excellent dancers, performing sweetly as little cupids, and a fifth member, Frederick Metzger, bravely took on several small but exposed portions of the role of L'Amour.

Ultimately, there is considerable distance to cover before fully connecting with Lully's "Psyché." It is a work by the great artists of Louis XIV's France, reimagining the ancient gods in the fantasies and formats of their own era. Here, we have contemporary artists reimagining their reimagining. This team does so eloquently, and its collective efforts have allowed us to contemplate a previously uncharted expanse of Lully's musical world, distant perhaps, yet still pulsating.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

'Related'

Psyché

Opera by Jean-Baptiste Lully

Presented by Boston Early Music Festival.

At: Cutler Majestic Theatre, Tuesday night (through June 17, with additional performances in Great Barrington June 22-24 ) 617-868-2363, bemf.org

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