We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Wednesday, May 8, 2024


 Opera Lafayette performance of Mouret's Les Fêtes de Thalie

It is always an occasion when Opera Lafayette comes to New York City. They are unique in combining scholarship with entertainment and doing a superb job on both counts. We attended the pre-performance lecture and learned a great deal about the historical and musical context of Les Fêtes de Thalie; our companion arrived in time for the performance; both of us enjoyed the performance.  So, although scholarly knowledge added something, it wasn't necessary for the "pleasure principle" to take hold.

It is on this aspect that we choose to focus. The structure of this light-hearted early 18th c. romp by Jean-Joseph Mouret involved a Prologue, in which two Muses duke it out.  Dramatic soprano Angel Azzarra lent her full-throated voice to the role of Melpomene, Muse of Tragedy and the charming lighter-voiced soprano Paulina Francisco appeared as Thalie, Muse of Comedy. 

We were reminded of Richard Strauss' comedy Ariadne auf Naxos in which the down to earth Zerbinetta is in contest with the haughty diva who was to perform a tragedy. But in this opera, a compromise is reached by Apollo (Jonathan Woody) who makes the decision that tragedy would be performed in the winter and comedy in the summer.  Just like today, when we seek lighter entertainment in the summertime. 

After the three acts, all based on the same theme of how women deal with love, there is "La Critique" in which the Muses representing all the arts involved in the production vie for importance. Polyhymnia, Muse of Music (Ariana Wehr, dressed as a conductor) joins Thalie and Terpsichore, Muse of Dance (Pascale Beaudin) and get a rather mediocre review from Momus, God of Mockery (Patrick Kilbride). You will get no such mediocre review here, Dear Reader. We found the entire evening delightful.  This scene brought to mind another Strauss opera Capriccio in which the relative merits of libretto and music are compared.

Sandwiched in-between "Prologue" and "Critique" were three scenes in which cast members took various parts.  In "La Fille", a ship's captain (Jean-Bernard  Cerin) arrives in Marseille bringing with him Cléon (whom he rescued from pirates, played by Mr. Woody.  The captain is unsuccessful at wooing Cléon's daughter (Ms. Francisco) until he flirts with Cléonte's wife (Mr. Kilbride in a frock).

In "La Veuve Coquette", a happy widow (Ms. Beaudin) refuses to give up her single status in spite of the heroic efforts of the wealthy Chrisogon (a very funny John Taylor Ward) and the earnest military man Léandre (Scott Brunscheen) and the urging of her friend (Ms. Azzarra). Do we see a theme here? Yes, we do! We had no idea that 18th c. women were so disinclined to wed!

In the third scene "La Femme" Ms. Beaudin portrays a clever wife who outwits her philandering spouse (Mr. Cerin). She pretends to go away and arrives in disguise at a masked ball her husband is throwing and fools him into believing she is his latest potential conquest. She delays the unmasking as long as possible and when she finally does they both take the joke well. Now she knows he really loves her!  Does this remind you of an operetta? Since this work has lain undiscovered for centuries, it is unlikely to have influenced subsequent composers; but it does remind us that such tropes are common in opera.

Each of the three scenes involved spectacular dancing (Thanks, Terpsichore!) In "La Fille" we had sailors dancing the Hornpipe, choreographed by Julian. Donahue and Julia Bengtsson with dancers from the New York Baroque Dance Company. In "La Veuve Coquette" the dance choreographed by Anuradha Nehru and Pragnya Thamire was a village wedding party and the dancers from Kalanidhi Dance made a fine showing. Perhaps the most exciting dances were those at the masked ball in "La Femme". Particularly exciting was a bullfighter. Those dancers were choreographed by Caroline Copeland.

The colorful costumes were designed by Marie Anne Chiment. Melpomene was dressed in a floor length dramatic caftan of royal purple whilst Thalie was costumed in a motley jacket and mini-skirt with punk look combat boots. The best costumes, however were in  "La Femme" in which we noted some commedia dell'arte characters as well as the aforementioned bullfighter.

We have devoted most of our space to the libretto (by Joseph de La Font) and the colorful costuming and dancing but let us not neglect Polyhymnia. The excellent conductor for the evening was Maestro Christophe Rousset whose effective conducting of Mouret's music was the necessary underpinning for the action, singing, and dancing. 

The Stage Director, Catherine Turocy, kept the action moving briskly and managed to make the work seem not only historically intact but also contemporary and relevant.

The amount of labor it must have taken over a period of several years to bring this lost work to vivid life is astonishing. Musical preparation, coordination of different choreographers, assigning several roles to each artist, getting the entire project onstage--who but Opera Lafayette would have the interest and the means to have achieved all this, a major feather in their already multi-feathered cap.  
We do hope the work was recorded on video since so few people got to experience it. The theater at Museo del Barrio was packed and we assume the theater in Washington D.C. was as well, but it surely deserves a wider audience.

© meche kroop

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