|Talise Trevigne and Sophie Junker (photo by Louis Forget)|
There is nothing secret about our affection for Opera Lafayette and our excitement when they come up from Washington D.C., always bringing a delicious confection for our delectation. Founded twenty years ago by Conductor and Artistic Director Ryan Brown, this highly regarded ensemble of period instrumentalists specializes in neglected French masterpieces of the pre-classical and classical period.
Last night, comfortably ensconced in the Florence Gould Hall of the French Institute Alliance Française, we totally forgot that we were in New York City in the 21st c. We were transported to the newly born 19th c. in New Orleans (a time and place of which we are inordinately fond, as regular readers will recall). We are surrounded not by New York opera lovers but by a tri-cultural audience eager for the latest import from France, particularly from l’opéra comique. The pieces were closer to our present day musical theater than they were to opera which generally comprised tragédie lyrique, telling of gods, goddesses and heroes. These confections focused on the "common folk".
André Grétry was one of the musical superstars of the age and his L’Épreuve Villageoise premiered in Versailles in 1784 as a more serious work under a different title. Queen Marie-Antoinette, known to play at the simple country life herself, shared with the attendant aristocracy a lack of interest in the noble characters, preferring the subplot which was written for comic relief. Thus, the romantic intrigues of the rustic characters were extracted, retitled, and performed regularly in France and then exported all over the world with a new title. These light-hearted works of the period had small casts and simple sets with spoken dialogue that was easy to translate. Thus they became, with the help of the Marquis de Lafayette, representative of French culture worldwide.
This point was made during the overture as the gaily costumed characters manipulated the three curtains on which were painted a small house, a large plantation, and a shaded glen. Placards in several languages announcing the work were exchanged several times with the ultimate one announcing the work as being performed at the St. Pierre theater in New Orleans. One got the impression of a traveling team of vaudevillians.
The story is a simple one. Young Denise (Pascale Beaudin) is being courted by two men—the farmer André (tenor Francisco Fernández) whom she loves but whose jealousy has troubled her, and Monsieur La France (baritone Thomas Dolié), the pompous overseer of a plantation who had previously courted her mother Madame Hubert (mezzo-soprano Talise Trevigne). Mother and daughter collaborate to teach both men a lesson.
The vocal lines and text (by Pierre Desforges) set Monsieur La France apart in both style and content from the three “peasants” who sang more simply. Although the solos were wonderful we were most interested in the blending of voices in the trios and quartets. The dance numbers were colorful and captivating, as choreographed by Aaron R. White, whose own dancing was nimble and brilliant. Kendra Rai’s costume design was perfect—a kind of glorified representation of plantation workers. Slavery was never indicated!
Nick Olcott’s direction kept things moving and motivated, effectively using the cutouts in the hanging curtains (set design by Luciana Stecconi) for characters to spy on one another. The sextet of choristers added greatly to the proceedings—not just vocally but choreographically.
The period instrument orchestra astonished us with their virtuosity. The strings were sweet with Claire Jolivet as Concertmaster. We loved the sound of the valveless horns, as well as the period oboes and flutes. Andrew Appel sounded just fine on the harpsichord.
What fun it was to pretend we were in the “there and then” instead of the “here and now”!
© meche kroop
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