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Portrait of André Ernest Modeste Grétry (1741-1813) by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1785)
23 May 2011

Richard Coeur-de-Lion, New York

André-Modeste Grétry, the greatest opera composer ever to come from Belgium, made his way to Paris in 1767 at the age of 26.

André Ernest Modeste Grétry: Richard Coeur-de-Lion

Laurette: Molly Davey; Antonio: Catherine Webber; Blondel: Robert Balonek; Richard: Joshua Benevento; Williams: Cory Clines; Florestan: Anthony Caputo. American Classical Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Crawford. At the Society for Ethical Culture, performance of May 18.

Above: Portrait of André Ernest Modeste Grétry (1741-1813) by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1785)


His grand operas were flops and he himself disarmingly confessed to having little talent for harmony, but the tunefulness of his light operas—we might call them operettas or opéras-bouffes if those terms had been coined yet—made him the toast of the town, an international success, and enabled him to survive the Revolution despite the distinctly royalist overtones of his biggest hit, Richard Coeur-de-Lion (1784, revised 1785). The big number, “O Richard, O mon roi, l’univers t’abandonne” (Oh, Richard, my king, though the universe abandons thee”) was sung by loyal but indiscreet officers toasting Louis XVI at a difficult moment during the uprisings, with disastrous consequences. Grétry sat out the bad times, then brought the opera back when Napoleon proclaimed himself emperor.

Grétry was a man on one of the cusps of opera, the confusing but inspiring time when opera seria was expiring and no one was sure what the new music would produce for the stage. Gluck (who composed light operas and opere serie as well as the “reform” dramas for which we remember him best) was an important influence, on the era and on Grétry. Gluck and Mozart and a whole array of lesser lights, step by step, transformed opera, and it is difficult not to be fascinated by the explorations that led them there. That means the operas of Monsigny, of J.C. Bach, of Salieri, of Paisiello, of Martin y Soler—all of them familiar to Mozart. So was Grétry, who was at the first peak of his popularity when Mozart paid his famous visit to Paris in 1778.

Grétry’s use of spoken dialogue rather than the Italian invention of recitative between numbers, combined with his intentional and dramatic blurring of the edges between dialogue and musical numbers makes him the harder to present in translation, though in his own era full translations of Richard were popular in London and many other towns. Like Opera Lafayette, which presented a rather disappointing account of Grétry’s Le Magnifique last fall, American Classical Orchestra (which has also given his Zémire et Azor) has compromised by having the dialogue in English, the singing in French. Whatever continuity Grétry was aiming for is thereby sacrificed, and since this is precisely why his operas were important, it seems an unfortunate choice. Too, Opera Lafayette’s singers were not very good and the plot of Le Magnifique seemed especially silly and dubiously coherent. Richard was, at least, presented with good voices and ardent actors, and one could almost overlook the awkward jump into and out of song.

Richard is a rescue opera—though such operas (Fidelio being the most notable) are usually assigned to the era after the Revolution. The principal figure is not the title character, England’s Crusader king, a captive in Germany, but the troubadour Blondel who (in this version anyway) wanders around the neighborhood pretending to be a blind minstrel, hoping to get a lead on his royal friend’s whereabouts. This produces (in Act II) a duet, within and without the castle walls and, the identification being made, to a stratagem to get him out. Connoisseurs of Mission: Impossible will sneer at the simplicity of the plot, and the emotional level is hardly that of Fidelio, but people have to start somewhere.

Baritone Robert Balonek, in the starring role of the troubadour Blondel, revealed a light, full, meaty, attractive baritone that made this faithful intriguer comprehensible and sympathetic, and he’s easy on the eyes as well as the ears. I look forward to hearing him again.

Molly Davey sang Laurette, whose aria is nowadays the best-known item in the score, being the reverie of the Countess in Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades. It is a curious number, seeming somehow more appropriate to the sinister, apprehensive moment in that opera than it is in Grétry’s light original. Davey sang it very oddly: some phrases clear, light and high-flying, others from an entirely different voice lurking in the mezzo range, and still others, here and elsewhere all night, in an almost inaudible squeak. She should consider getting her various voices to study with the same teacher. At least they should be more intimately introduced to one another.

Joshua Benevento sang a pleasant, not terribly distinguished King Richard, Cory Clines a sturdy innkeeper, Anthony Caputo a mellow prison commander—more a lover (of Laurette) than a villain like Pizarro in Fidelio. Bright-voiced Catherine Webber sang the trouser role of Blondel’s pert young guide.

Thomas Crawford led this charming performance. The American Classical Orchestra makes use of valveless brasses (trumpets, horns) and skin heads on their drums, but happily, their antiquarianism does not prevent them playing in tune. While no substitute for a full staging, the American Classical Orchestra’s concert provided an enjoyable introduction to this winsome score.

John Yohalem

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