Opera Lafayette will be playing the Palace. Having had one performance at the Kennedy Center,
Opera Lafayette next moves its production of this 18th century opera to NYC and then to the palace of Versailles
Opera Lafayette has charted a course over the past several years to bring modern audiences operatic works of the 18thcentury. While the challenge of dusting off forgotten works and coaxing contemporary audiences to develop an appetite for such a rarefied experience can be daunting, Artistic Director Ryan Brown more than meets the challenge in opera after opera.
For Le Roi et le fermier, he springs his passion on an opéra-comique that had both artistic and political importance in its time. As conductor, he carries the orchestra and the audience through the evening with verve and panache. Brown so deeply understands French music of the period, he convinces all of the work’s merits in this modern world, premiere production.
When it was first written, Le Roi et le fermier proved to be quite new and subversive. It grew out of the soil of France’s fermentation against the monarchy and the status quo. Not only were the citoyens abandoning the “heavy” and heavily-government subsidized theatre of Académie royale de musique and Comédie française, but they were looking abroad to England for lighter artistic and more liberal monarchical fare.
Composer Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny and librettist Jean-Michel Sedaine joined forces to use what on the surface is little more than a situation comedy with songs to collaborate on something both socially and musically daring. Le roi et le fermierreceived its first production in 1762. Curiously, by 1780, instead of being suppressed, the work was performed at Versailles with Marie Antoinette performing Jenny, one of the leads, through a series of developments suggesting co-option by the establishment. (The audience is transported to this world with an exquisite opening, enhanced by the lighting of Colin K. Bills, where the statuary on the grounds of Versailles seemingly comes to life and proceeds to guide us through the performance.)
Monsieur Soudaine’s libretto drapes its story on a farmer, Richard, in charge of the royal forest of Sherwood. At the opera’s start, Richard plays a bit of a comic dunce, alternately agitated and disconsolate about some secret grievance. Later, he reveals that his love, Jenny, has been abducted by a Lord, together with her whole flock of sheep. (Thus the major dramatic event of the work has taken place before the curtain rises.) Jenny appears to Richard, having escaped the evil lord’s clutches, and the lovers take shelter from a storm. The King shows up in Sherwood, having been separated from his hunting party, and Richard, not recognizing the royal personage, invites him home. There is some fun as sister, mom, and girlfriend make a fuss over the well-dressed stranger. As the country folk unwittingly chat it up with royalty, the King learns a lesson in wisdom about what simple folk do, and Richard’s sister gives his majesty a big kiss. When his identity is revealed, the King banishes the evil Lord and blesses the union of Richard and his little shepherdess.
Marie Antoinette, who happened to have a penchant for sheep which she kept tucked around her “cottage” on the grounds of Versailles, must have seen in the work a great opportunity and role for herself, and she demanded that a suitable set be created for a royal production. The set still exists, and the entire cast and orchestra of Opera Lafayette have the distinct honor of being invited to perform the production in Versailles in early February on the original Marie Antoinette sets.
The orchestra of twenty-eight is outstanding. Many of the musicians have played together under Ryan Brown before and have gelled into a true ensemble, delivering the nuances of the French style and the crisp forward motion of the conductor’s interpretation. They balance well with the singers, never overwhelming the ariettes and providing just the right elasticity for the recit sections. One can only imagine the original excitement of hearing the “sound effects” built into the music of the storm and the forest at night. Even now, these musical sections are compelling and add to the drama. The only misfortune is that the musicians (a joy to watch as well as to hear) are buried in the deep pit of the Terrace Theatre. Fortunately, they will be resurrected in their upcoming New York and Versailles performances.
Performances by all the singers were of exceptionally high quality, and the Terrace Theatre provides a suitable, intimate venue for the audience to enjoy the stage performers, who shape and shade sound so delicately. Baritone William Sharp (Richard) is a singer-actor of exceptional skills and demonstrated his capacity for both comedy and pathos. He conveyed the universal situation of a man thwarted in love who also has a hard time keeping the women in his life happy. His easy stage physicality filled out the sometimes stilted conceptual stylization, making his character always believable in contemporary terms.
Others also excelled physically as well as vocally. Yulia Van Doren as Betsy, Richard’s Sister, was a sheer delight with her wired, Pippy Longstocking braids bobbling around the stage. She succeeded in bringing the work’s comedy to life, combusting as only a teenager can, changing from melodramatic despair to high-flying exuberance. Delores Ziegler (Mother) sang beautifully and with authority, but it was the grounding of her scenes with an earthy strength that made her role truly compelling. Thomas Michael Allen performed the role of King with a physical presence as commanding as his voice. He also found a way to bring the comic style to life, particularly in the scene with Richard’s family where everyone takes a turn to sing, and he is ordered to share a song.
Dominique Labelle (Jenny) took fewer risks physically and seemed satisfied to perform in what was no doubt the “stand and deliver” style of the period. Nonetheless, her shimmery sound is a Baroque music lover’s delight, where her every vowel swells like a plump peony blooming.
I was particularly impressed with some of the ensemble numbers where the music and the drama seemed most powerfully interconnected. In Act III, the women perform a marvelous trio by as they spin, all singing different melodies. In the same act, when the King is revealed, the septet kicks everything up to a rousing climax.
My favorite match of musical writing and performing has to go to the knockout duo, Jeffrey Thomson and Tony Boutté, who together steal the show with their over-the-top, impeccable comic timing as thin-and-stout clowning courtiers in their racing musical patter. These two seemed effortlessly at ease in stylish physical comedy, and no doubt part of their success can be attributed to the fact that they were allowed to speak as well as sing their roles.
Opera has two distinct challenges: language (there are so many) and rehearsal time (there’s never enough). Additionally, opera has traditionally been understood as a through-composed form, sung and musically supported throughout. Le Roi et le fermier bears a structure closer to a musical, with spoken dialogue interspersed with songs.
All these features contributed to the choice made by directors Didier Rousselet and Monica Neagoy to split the delivery of the roles. Most of the singers were entrusted only to perform the songs, while in most scenes of spoken dialogue the directors stepped into the multiple roles, speaking the lines as the singers moved in and out of tableaux vivants. (Think slow motion replay of football plays with occasional freeze frames while a color commentator interprets the action.) It was an interesting choice, and both Rousselet and Neagoy possess strong stage presences, but I don’t think the concept entirely worked. The directors also elected to have some singers speak their own lines, and this inconsistency proved confusing. The directors’ choices hampered the performers, and in my opinion, the singers in the cast demonstrate strong acting chops and could have managed the declarative style of French that was chosen.
This criticism aside, the quality of the production and the style of opera don’t come around often. If you don’t have plans to be at Versailles in February, sharing with the cast the original sets, you won’t want to miss Opera Lafayette in future, local engagements. It’s an enormous privilege to have the company part of the Washington community. The musical talents gathered create beautifully realized “high art”, and the dedication of these outstanding artists is something to hear.
Le Roi et le fermier played one performance at the Kennedy Center, January 21, 2012.
Buy tickets for their performances at Lincoln Center in NYC and at the Versailles
Le Roi et le fermier
Music by Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny
Libretto by Michel-Jean Sedaine
Conducted by Ryan Brown
Directed by Didier Rousselet
Assisted and Choreographed by Monica Neagoy
Produced by Opera Lafayette
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes with one intermission