|Sophie Junker and Amel Brahim-Djelloul (photo by Louis Forget)
You may be wondering how one gets an audience member to fork over the considerable cost of a ticket for such a brief entertainment. Wonder no longer. The astute direction of Bernard Deletré (also a singer and actor) expanded the tale of two naïfs unable to consummate their marriage by means of a prologue showing their earlier education, the education that was so incomplete.
On one side of the stage we had Hélène de la Cerisale (played by various female children) being sung and read to by her maiden aunt (played by Sophie Junker who would later take the role of the 16-year-old bride). On the other side of the stage we had Gontran de Boismassif (portrayed by various male children) being instructed by his cleric/tutor Maitre Pausanias (sung by Dominique Côté). The children are shown sequentially at 6 months of age, 6 years, and 12 years.
These brief scenes told us all we need to know about childhood education in France when the Royalists of the Second Empire were in charge. It wasn't too far from the goals of the present day Republican Religious Right--obedience and traditionalism. Au contraire, the Republicans of the late 19th c. (the Third Republic) were fighting for free public education for both genders and for removing public instruction from the hands of the Catholic Church. Sounds like the secular Democratic agenda of today!
It was in this contentious environment that Chabrier's librettists (Eugène Letterier and Albert Vanloo) wrote this seeming piece of fluff, demonstrating their progressive position by satirizing their opponents. Sometimes the best way to get one's point across is with humor. The satire is pointed but never nasty.
For the story, Chabrier wrote the most delicious melodies that are instantly accessible without being at all trite. The work is within the tradition of opéra bouffe and was presented in 1879 at the Cercle International, a club where illegal gambling was tolerated. The songs that were used by Opera Lafayette to pad out the opera are settings of texts by one Edmond Rostand. They are about animals (ducks, pigs, cicadas, chickens, and a tortoise)--Chabrier's very own "Carnival of the Animals". To these songs he brought interesting harmonies and lavishly applied coloring. The song about the rooster and the hen was particularly entertaining.
As to the story of the work itself, it is a simple one. Gontran and Hélène are newlyweds and totally ignorant about sex. They are simply at loose ends. Gontran would consult his tutor Pausanias but the tipsy cleric knows nothing. A letter from Gontran's grandfather is likewise unhelpful. Hélène's maiden aunt similarly knows nothing. She just advises her niece to be kind and obedient.
It is only a thunderstorm that drives the bride into the arms of the groom where nature can take her dependable course!
Chabrier made sure that his performers were as skilled at acting as they were at singing; Opera Lafayette has done the same. Ms. Junker and Ms. Brahim-Djelloul, in addition to having fine voices and musical instincts, are brilliant comic actors, making the innocence of their characters appealing rather than appalling. Baritone Dominique Cöté was the perfect representation of a bibulous tutor.
Artistic Director Ryan Brown conducted the work with panache and Jeffery Watson tickled our ears with his piano. Costumes by Patricia Forelle were original and colorful. She chose to make them amusing and stylish, rather than scrupulous to the period. Lighting was by Colin K. Bills.
Elaborate sets would have been a distraction. Instead we had table and chairs and tons of books representing Gontran's extensive book learning. The patter song in which Pausanias lists all the disciplines he has inculcated into his student's brain was particularly fine.
We can scarcely wait for Opera Lafayette's return on May 1st when they will present three dramatic scenes referencing the French Revolution. Their work is always intertaining and impeccably done.
(c) meche kroop