Prepare to be whisked away to Paris for an exquisite, one-night-only event.
On Friday, Sept. 20, Ars Lyrica Houston is offering a dream getaway – no flight required. In its season-opening concert, the early-music ensemble transforms Zilkha Hall into the grandeur of the Palais-Royal, which was built opposite the Louvre as a residence for King Louis XIII’s Chief Minister Cardinal Richelieu in the 17th century and later became the childhood home of Louis XIV, the Sun King.
The collaborative program, titled “Dancing at the Palais,” will bring French etiquette to life, featuring period choreography by the New York Baroque Dance Company’s artistic director Catherine Turocy set to instrumental suites from two colorful French Baroque operas that debuted in the theater of the historical monument – André Campra’s “Hésione” and Jean-Philippe Rameau’s “Les Indes Galantes.”
“Music, broadly defined of course, is just sound and time, and we’re basically taking a journey back to the early 18th century with these pieces, showing the culture in at least two very pertinent ways, both musically and in terms of its dance,” said Matthew Dirst, artistic director of Ars Lyrica who participated in Baroque dance summer workshops while pursuing his doctorate in musicology at Stanford University in California. “We’re thrilled to be able to present something this special and unique. It is living history.”
Premiering in 1700, “Hésione” was Campra’s first tragic opera that follows a love quadrangle between Telamon, his rival Anchise, Venus and its namesake character, the Trojan princess Hesione. Meanwhile, as a consequence of refusing to provide the gods with a promised reward, Hesione’s father, King Laomedon was advised to sacrifice his daughter to a sea monster that Neptune had sent to destroy the city. Hercules saves her in the original Greek myth, but in the opera libretto written by Antoine Danchet, it is Telamon, a friend of Hercules, who becomes her rescuer.
Alongside the music, French operas during this time period typically included elaborate dancing. In fact, the movement, deriving from the formal traditions of French court dance, often served as an interruption to the drama, Dirst explained.
In the case of “Hésione,” a handful of dances have survived the passage of time, Dirst continued. Turocy will reconstruct such pieces, featuring pairings of dancers in authentic costuming, from step notations published in the early 18th century to accompany the score that was edited by John Powell, a professor of musicology at the University of Tulsa.
“It’s very informative for the musicians to see dancers executing steps to pieces that they may know or they may think they know how to play, but once you actually do it with choreography, with real live dancers, you learn a lot about how the music works, about how the stress patterns work, about how to breathe with the dancers, about how to inflect a note one way or another way, languidly or aggressively for example,” Dirst said. “It gives you a lot to play with, that kind of partnering with another art form. You learn from each other.”
A leader in the historical dance field, the New York Baroque Dance Company, which was co-founded by Turocy and Ann Jacoby in 1976, first collaborated with Ars Lyrica in 2012 for its season finale “Heaven and Hell,” a staged program of Claudio Monteverdi’s imaginative scores. They are scheduled to return next season as well for the ensemble’s second fully staged opera, Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas.”
In contrast to Campra’s work, Rameau’s “Les Indes Galantes,” which debuted over three decades later, involves an 18th-century, theatrical style of dance that is of a larger scale. What Dirst describes as a “musical travelogue,” the work is lighter entertainment in terms of plot, as it visits Turkey, Peru, Persia and North America in separate scenes that don’t necessarily relate to one another.
In Friday’s program, the full Baroque orchestra of strings and winds will perform three suites, maintaining the original orchestration, that were excerpted from this opéra-ballet and later published in a simplified arrangement for keyboard and voice by the composer himself.
‘Dancing at the Palais’
When: 8 p.m., Sept. 20
Where: Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby St.
Details: $23-75; 713-315-2525 or arslyricahouston.org
“It makes a nice splash at the beginning of the year to provide something with this many visuals – dancers and costumes and all of that,” Dirst said. “It should be a very colorful evening, certainly a feast for the eye and the ear.”
Lawrence Elizabeth Knox is a Houston-based writer.