The operas of Marin Marais are rarely performed today in contemporary opera houses, though not for lack of musical and dramatic value. His final opera, Sémélé, had not been heard in nearly 300 years when the French ensemble Le Concert Spiritual, under the baton of Hervé Niquet, presented the work at the Festival International d’Opéra Baroque in Beaune, France in 2006—the 350th anniversary year of the composer’s birth. The following year, the same ensemble presented Sémélé (minus Marais’ 30-minute prologue, which was cut) in a fully staged production directed by Olivier Simonnet in Montpellier. Despite its rediscovery nine years ago, Marais’s final work for the lyric stage has only been performed in Europe—until now! Jeffrey Thomas and the ABS Festival Orchestra will present the U.S. Premiere of Sémélé at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music during the ABS Festival & Academy on Thursday & Friday, August 13 & 14.
Marais’ Sémélé is a work of beauty and verve (it has an exciting earthquake scene in Act V), but few actually heard the opera when it premiered on April 9, 1709 at the Palais Royal in Paris. Due to an extraordinarily cold European winter (often referred to as “The Great Frost”), the 1708-09 season was a terrible one for opera in France as the country was hit particularly hard: food shortages crippled its urban centers and revolts broke out in the streets. Amid this turmoil, turnouts for revivals of old operas by Lully or the new one by Marais were modest, to say the least. By the time conditions had improved in Paris, Marais had retired from his stressful position at the Opéra and returned to composing smaller-scale works for viola da gamba.
With the exception of occasional 18th-century revivals of his first successful stage work, Alcyone (1706), Marais’ tragedies en musique went mostly unperformed for hundreds of years. Thanks to the 1991 film Tous les matins du monde (“All the World’s Mornings”), an evocative treatment of the composer’s life with a stirring, viola da gamba-focused soundtrack, a renewed interest in Marais took off during the 1990s and 2000s. With the simultaneous reappraisal of French Baroque operas by Charpentier, Lully, Rameau, and others, a new appreciation of this grand tradition blossomed and yielded many thrilling musical (re) discoveries. Sémélé IS one of these great discoveries!
San Francisco, in all likelihood, will not be struck by a “great frost” this August, so the ABS Festival & Academy presents a perfect, not to mention rare, opportunity to experience this remarkable work live. As one of the highly anticipated early music events of the summer, tickets for Sémélé are already going fast. Reserve your seats for Sémélé today.
All Festival & Academy performances take place San Francisco Conservatory of Music, (50 Oak Street) from August 7-16. To request a Festival brochure, please visit americanbach.org or call (415) 621-7900.