The cast of Léo Delibes' Le roi l'a dit at Manhattan School of Music
We never get to see the Sun King Louis XIV onstage but he is the engine driving the deliriously silly plot of Léo Delibes' 1873 operetta presented for the past four nights at Manhattan School of Music. A golden medallion of his royal visage adorns the reception room in the home of Le Marquis de Moncontour, who has earned an audience with the King by capturing a stray parrot.
The work itself is like a meringue. Beaten just right, you get a delectable confection. Beaten too little and there is no shape; beaten excessively and things get nasty. The team of Director Dona D. Vaughn and Music Director of the Senior Opera Theater/Conductor Jorge Parodi are so incredibly effective that we wonder why the revered Metropolitan Opera cannot do such honor to the operas they choose to present.
This piece of fluff is a period piece and the entire production team gave us exactly what was intended--a gentle satire using stock characters to poke fun at the aristocracy, arranged marriages, duels, clever servants outwitting their masters, class distinctions, yearning for power, and awe of those in "superior positions".
The work itself is less than two hours in length; reading the plot summary takes almost as long! But the ending brings joy to the Moncontour household; the two marriageable daughters get the husbands they want, the two disdained suitors chosen by the parents get frightened off after a mock duel, the clever servant girl Javotte gets to spend her life with Benoit, the sweetheart from her village, and the Marquis and Marquise can stop quarreling. They are happy. We are happy.
The big joke is the sudden Pygmalion-like transformation of Benoit; he wants to better himself and falls into a situation where the Marquis needs to produce a son to win favor from the King. Miton, the household etiquette tutor, achieves the transformation in ten lessons. Benoit, dressed to the nines, adopts the mien of arrogance and becomes thereby convincingly aristocratic.
He presses his advantage to dispatch the unwelcome suitors, to rescue the daughters from a convent, and ensure that they get the husbands they have chosen for themselves.
The libretto for this silly but pointed plot was written by Edmond Gondinet and first offered to Jacques Offenbach who was and is known for his fine hand at this sort of thing. That Delibes was equally assured at frivolity came to us as a delightful surprise. The work was a modest success in the 19th c. and was revived a few times in the 20th c. but was never before presented in the United States.
The music is as light and tickly as champagne. Maestro Jorge Parodi took command of his fine orchestra right from the overture, comprising an opening march, followed by a lyrical theme, and then a frisky one.
But oh, those melodies! They tumbled out one after another with the entire cast doing a splendid job with their fresh young well-trained voices. Particularly lovely was the duet between Benoit, the upwardly mobile peasant (terrific tenor Philippe L'Esperance) and his sweetheart Javotte who left her village to come work for the Marquis. This role was sung by soprano Alexandra Linde, an adorable Swedish songbird, possessor of astounding coloratura skills.
Speaking of adorable, if the four daughters had not been chosen for their fine voices, we would have believed they were chosen for their looks. In ensemble, they harmonized happily. Only petite soprano Christa Dalmazio had an aria to show off her fine coloratura. The other three were sopranos Nicole Rowe and Grace Kidd, and mezzo-soprano Alanna Fraize.
The sycophantic Marquis was well portrayed by baritone Michael Gracco and the Marquise by the fine mezzo-soprano Monica Talavera.
The two desirable suitors were britches roles and soprano Eleanor Coleman and mezzo-soprano Agness Nyama made them vocally and dramatically appealing. In the second act trio with Benoit, we were astonished by the musical modernity of Delibes' writing. It sounded almost like jazz singers doing scat!
The two cast-off suitors were portrayed by baritones Nicholas Krsnich and Seok Jong Baek.
Matthew Hernandez made a fine servant to the household. As Miton, the pompous etiquette tutor, Marshall Morrow overplayed his part by half but it just added to the fun. After all, we are watching stock characters meant to utilize a very broad acting style.
The costumes by Summer Lee Jack were appropriately over the top, poking fun at the High Baroque. The set by Kate Ashton was simple but effective; there were sheer white drapes, a few pieces of period furniture, some flowers, and a screen for suitors to hide behind (of course). We spied a couple porcelain rabbits hiding under tables.
Ms. Vaughn kept the action moving at a fast pace and wisely chose to have the dialogue in English and the singing in French. French diction was fine all around, thanks to the efforts of Bénédicte Jourdois.
We walked out smiling and humming the tunes, wondering why no one ever thought to revive this gem before. Perhaps it was chosen for its large cast, giving so many talented young singers a chance to perform. Whatever the reason, we are grateful that the always enterprising folks at Manhattan School of Music put it on stage.
(c) meche kroop