|Jean-Michel Richer as Florestan in Opera Lafayette's production of Pierre Gaveaux' Leonore
When an opera arrives at legendary status, other iterations of the same story generally fade away. Paisiello's Barber of Seville (produced by On Site Opera) and Salieri's Falstaff (produced by Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble) are cases in point. That a libretto for Beethoven's Fidelio was set before was not known to us, but what a revelation it was, in a production by the intrepid Opera Lafayette performed at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College.
Opera Lafayette has the perfect niche, specializing in the French repertoire and performing on period instruments. This production of Pierre Gaveaux's 1798 work Leonore ou L'Amour conjugal is the first in modern times. What a delight to hear a work that has lain dormant for over two centuries, a veritable "sleeping beauty", awakened by the Opera Lafayette kiss. Fear not if you missed it because it has been filmed.
You already know the story--Leonore (soprano Kimy McLaren) has been working at a prison where she believes her innocent husband has been incarcerated after having exposed a tyrant. She has ingratiated herself to Roc, the prison warden (bass Tomislav Lavoie), gaining his trust.
Roc has approved a marriage between his daughter Marceline (Pascale Beaudin) and Leonore, the former having fallen in love with the cross-dressed Leonore who calls herself Fidelio. Marceline's suitor Jacquino (tenor Keven Geddes) is unhappy about Marceline's rejection of his advances but, not to worry, the story has a happy ending.
After two years of terrible suffering in prison, Florestan (tenor Jean-Michel Richer) is finally liberated by his faithful wife, although his death has been commanded by the evil Pizare (baritone Dominique Cote). The deus ex machina arrives at the last minute in the person of Dom Fernand (bass baritone Alexandre Sylvestre).
There are two important themes to be considered. The first is the fidelity of Leonore who has never given up on finding and freeing her husband and is ready to die with him if she fails.
The second theme is that of unjust and arbitrary imprisonment and the need for liberation. When Jean-Nicolas Bouilly wrote the libretto, France was reeling from Robespierre's Reign of Terror and this theme was a common one in opera of that epoch. So called "rescue dramas" were familiar to audiences.
By the time Beethoven acquired the libretto in German translation, there were other tyrants and the work transmogrified from the historical to the personal. It is unknown whether Beethoven ever heard Gavreau's score but it was found in his home after his death.
In any case, much about his Fidelio is anticipated in Gavreau's work, which was produced for the Opera Comique and therefore has substantial spoken dialogue and an altogether lighter touch. The opera opens with a comic scene between Marceline and Jacquino in which director Oriol Tomas has provided them with clever stage business that limns their homely existence--folding laundry.
The strophic music is delightfully tuneful and more than usually memorable. (Small wonder that popular music is written strophically!) Duets were uncommonly beautiful.
When the prisoners are released for a few moments of daylight, they sing a stirring chorus, ending Act I on a hopeful note.
Act II begins on a tragic note with the suffering Florestan pouring out his despair. On a personal note, we were quite moved by his aria which the singer delivered with as dark a color as was a propos.
There was not a weak link in the vocalism; all the singers are Canadian and the French was mostly understandable, a good thing because the stage lighting often faded out the surtitles. We could not have asked for a better cast; they delivered dramatically as well as vocally.
We liked the direction and the opera moved along swiftly, leaving us wishing there were a bit more!
Laurence Mongeau's sets and costumes worked well. The set comprised a series of rectangular forms and pillars which folded into each other and could readily be moved to suggest a different place. The costumes suggested late 18th c. Europe but were less fussy. Everything worked well together and was enhanced by Julie Basse's effective lighting.
Ryan Brown, Founder and Director of Opera Lafayette conducted the sizable orchestra which was at the same level as the first row of the raked orchestra, giving us a welcome view of his balletic style of conducting. We also enjoyed the opportunity to see the individual instrumentalists, including some wooden flutes and oboes. The playing was beautifully integrated with the singing and performed in fine French style.
Given the choice of enduring another jagged-edge modern opera or thrilling to the discovery of a forgotten masterpiece, we will not hesitate to choose the latter and are happy to give credit to Opera Lafayette for another night of pleasure and illumination. We can't help wondering how many more worthy pieces are awaiting discovery. Opera Lafayette remains the Christopher Columbus of the opera world.
(c) meche kroop