Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Peter Sellars' kinaesthetic vision of Lasso's Lagrime di San Pietro

On 24th May 1594 just a few weeks before his death on 14 June, the elderly Orlando di Lasso signed the dedication of his Lagrime di San Pietro - an expansive cycle of seven-voice penitential madrigale spirituali, setting vernacular poetry on the theme of Peter’s threefold denial of Christ - to Pope Clement VIII.

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Donnerstag aus Licht

Stockhausen was one of the most visionary of composers, and no more so than in his Licht operas, but what you see can often get in the way of what you hear. I’ve often found fully staged productions of his operas a distraction to the major revelation in them - notably the sonorities he explores, of the blossoming, almost magical acoustical chrysalis, between voices and instruments.

David McVicar's Andrea Chénier returns to Covent Garden

Is Umberto’s Giordano’s Andrea Chenier a verismo opera? Certainly, he is often grouped with Mascagni, Cilea, Leoncavallo and Puccini as a representative of this ‘school’. And, the composer described his 1876 opera as a dramma de ambiente storico.

Glyndebourne presents Richard Jones's new staging of La damnation de Faust

Oratorio? Opera? Cantata? A debate about the genre to which Berlioz’s ‘dramatic legend’, La damnation de Faust, should be assigned could never be ‘resolved’.

Hampstead Garden Opera presents Partenope-on-sea

“Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside! I do like to be beside the sea!” And, it was off to the Victorian seaside that we went for Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of Handel’s Partenope - not so much for a stroll along the prom, rather for boisterous battles on the beach and skirmishes by the shore.

Henze's Phaedra: Linbury Theatre, ROH

A song of love and death, loss and renewal. Opera was born from the ambition of Renaissance humanists to recreate the oratorical and cathartic power of Greek tragedy, so it is no surprise that Greek myths have captivated composers of opera, past and present, offering as they do an opportunity to engage with the essential human questions in contexts removed from both the sacred and the mundane.

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II - a world premiere

Is it in any sense aspirational to imitate - or even to try to create something original - based on one of Stockhausen’s works? This was a question I tried to grapple with at the world premiere of Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II.

The BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music join forces for Handel's Israel in Egypt

The biblical account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is the defining event of Jewish history. By contrast, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt has struggled to find its ‘identity’, hampered as it is by what might be termed the ‘Part 1 conundrum’, and the oratorio has not - despite its repute and the scholarly respect bestowed upon it - consistently or fully satisfied audiences, historic or modern.

Measha Brueggergosman: The Art of Song – Ravel to John Cage

A rather charming story recently appeared in the USA of a nine-year old boy who, at a concert given by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, let out a very audible “wow” at the end of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music. I mention this only because music – whether you are neurotypical or not – leads to people, of any age, expressing themselves in concerts relative to the extraordinary power of the music they hear. Measha Brueggergosman’s recital very much had the “wow” factor, and on many distinct levels.

World premiere of Cecilia McDowall's Da Vinci Requiem

The quincentennial of the death Leonardo da Vinci is one of the major events this year – though it doesn’t noticeably seem to be acknowledged in new music being written for this.

Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

In 1982, while studying in Germany, I had the good fortune to see Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear sung in München by the original cast, which included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Júlia Várady and Helga Dernesch. A few years later, I heard it again in San Francisco, with Thomas Stewart in the title role. Despite the luxury casting, the harshly atonal music—filled with quarter-tones, long note rows, and thick chords—utterly baffled my twenty-something self.

Berlioz’s Requiem at the Concertgebouw – earthshakingly stupendous

It was high time the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra programmed Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts. They hadn’t performed it since 1989, and what better year to take it up again than in 2019, the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death?

Matthew Rose and Friends at Temple Church

I was very much looking forward to this concert at Temple Church, curated by bass Matthew Rose and designed to celebrate music for voice commissioned by the Michael Cuddigan Trust, not least because it offered the opportunity to listen again to compositions heard recently - some for the first time - in different settings, and to experience works discussed coming to fruition in performance.

Handel's Athalia: London Handel Festival

There seems little to connect the aesthetics of French neoclassical theatre of the late-seventeenth century and English oratorio of the early-eighteenth. But, in the early 1730s Handel produced several compositions based on Racine’s plays, chief among them his Israelite-oratorios, Esther (1732) and Athalia (1733).

Ravel’s L’heure espagnole: London Symphony Orchestra conducted by François-Xavier Roth

Although this concert was devoted to a single composer, Ravel, I was initially a little surprised by how it had been programmed. Thematically, all the works had the essence of Spain running through them - but chronologically they didn’t logically follow on from each other.

Breaking the Habit: Stile Antico at Kings Place

Renaissance patronage was a phenomenon at once cultural, social, political and economic. Wealthy women played an important part in court culture and in religious and secular life. In particular, music, musical performances and publications offered a female ruler or aristocrat an important means of ‘self-fashioning’. Moreover, such women could exercise significant influence on the shaping of vernacular taste.

The Secrets of Heaven: The Orlando Consort at Wigmore Hall

Leonel Power, Bittering, Roy Henry [‘Henry Roi’?], John Pyamour, John Plummer, John Trouluffe, Walter Lambe: such names are not likely to be well-known to audiences but alongside the more familiar John Dunstaple, they were members of the generation of Englishmen during the Middle Ages whose compositions were greatly admired by their fellow musicians on the continent.

Manitoba Opera: The Barber of Seville

Manitoba Opera capped its season on a high note with its latest production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, sung in the key of goofiness that has inspired even a certain “pesky wabbit,” a.k.a. Bugs Bunny’s The Rabbit of Seville.

Handel and the Rival Queens

From Leonardo vs. Michelangelo to Picasso vs. Matisse; from Mozart vs. Salieri to Reich v. Glass: whether it’s Maria Callas vs. Renata Tebaldi or Herbert von Karajan vs. Wilhelm Furtwängler, the history of culture is also a history of rivalries nurtured and reputations derided - more often by coteries and aficionados than by the artists themselves.

Britten's Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House

“Billy always attracted me, of course, the radiant young figure; I felt there was going to be quite an opportunity for writing nice dark music for Claggart; but I must admit that Vere, who has what seems to me the main moral problem of the whole work, round [him] the drama was going to centre.”

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

William Sharp as Richard and Thomas Dolié as Rustaut [Photo by Louis Forget courtesy of Opera Lafayette]
31 Jan 2012

Le Roi et le Fermier

A year or two back, Opera Lafayette, the Washington-based company that specializes in eighteenth-century obscurités françaises, presented Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny’s Le Magnifique, an opéra-comique about a race horse.

Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny: Le Roi et le Fermier

Jenny: Dominique Labelle; Betsy: Yulia Van Doren; La Mère: Delores Ziegler; Le Roi: Thomas Michael Allen; Lurewel: Jeffrey Thompson; Richard: William Sharp; Rustaut: Thomas Dolié; Charlot: David Newman. Opera Lafayette, conducted by Ryan Brown, at the Rose Theater. Performance of January 26.

Above: William Sharp as Richard and Thomas Dolié as Rustaut

Photos by Louis Forget courtesy of Opera Lafayette

 

Opéra-comique began its long and significant existence as a sort of French opera buffa, with less grandeur in the musical requirements and spoken dialogue instead of sung recitative between numbers. Over the years this mixed genre evolved in many interesting ways, not always comical: Carmen began life as an opéra-comique.

Le-Roi-8307.gifJeffrey Thompson as Lurewel

Le Magnifique had pretty tunes but the presentation was undermined by two insurmountable problems: English plot summaries spoken between musical selections (instead of the original French dialogue) and a title character who never appeared on stage—horses don’t sing much in opera, even opéra-comique. Le Magnifique proved a great disappointment considering the company’s excellent track record without horses, but how do you solve the dialogue problem if the piece is not in the local language and you are unwilling to trust your singers as actors?

The company’s music director, Ryan Brown, evidently has a passion for the once-chic Monsigny, however, and this year (its 250th anniversary) he chose to give the composer’s 1762 opus, Le Roi et le Fermier. This piece has a simpler plot, drawn from an English play, and both title characters (king and farmer) appear on stage and even sing. Furthermore, Le Roi had legendary legs: A hit not only in Paris but in Vienna and St. Petersburg, Le Roi et le Fermier was revived in 1780 at the theater at the chateau of Versailles in a production designed for, and starring, Marie Antoinette, who sang the role of the put-upon Jenny, a virtuous farm girl besieged by a nasty milord. The queen’s brother-in-law, the future King Charles X, sang the not inappropriate role of a dim but valiant gamekeeper. The show was often given for a few years, before an audience as select as the cast to be sure, and—miracle of miracles!—the sets have survived, have been refurbished, and will be in use again later this winter—for Opera Lafayette’s French debut. So New York’s Rose Theater at Columbus Circle became, in effect, the site of the out-of-town try-out (without sets).

Le-Roi-8406.gifDominique Labelle as Jenny, William Sharp as Richard and Thomas Michael Allen as Le Roi

The plot is brief, basic, obvious, wry: The king (incognito) is lost in Sherwood Forest in a storm. A kindly farmer invites him to dinner. The king thus encounters honest subjects first hand, learning that the farmer’s fiancée’s dowry (a flock of sheep) has been stolen by the lustful milord. Meanwhile, the milord (his name is Lurewel, which must have been funnier in the original English), also lost in the woods, has been discovered by gamekeepers who think he’s a poacher. Brought to book, he recognizes the king, who then punishes him and ennobles the farmer—who rejects the title for the false tinsel it is. Kings reaching over the heads of the nobility to befriend ordinary folk was a theme very much in the air, though Louis XVI seems to have missed the point. Too bad; he’d have been good at it.

All this may seem artificial (is the average Western much better? The Good, the Bad and the Royal?), and Opera Lafayette rolled with it: Welcome, total artifice, so long as it is done with style. Didier Rousselet’s witty staging in projected sets (a wonderful dark forest) included silent movie bustle, mugging and mime, foolish costumes—it’s dark in that hut but would a king remain incognito in a jeweled silk waistcoat?—and a pair of intrusive but chic French narrators to speak the dialogue between the musical numbers, standing behind or beside the close-mouthed singers. One got used to this; it seemed part and parcel of the artifice.

The score is tuneful and rewardingly clever with very simple means: A duet for loutish baritone gamekeepers is followed by another for two foolish tenor fops, and then, since they are all lost in the same wood, have a quartet, devised by repeating the duets simultaneously! The three women in the cottage with their separate concerns (worried bride, puzzled mother, chattering child) become a lovely trio of contrasting vocal lines over a common melody in the orchestra. Simple ideas, these, but effective and, in the voices of an accomplished cast, delicious. Monsigny’s orchestration is lively and witty (a pre-Rossini storm, galloping horns for the king’s hunt, tinkling bells whenever money is mentioned), but his music is really not strong enough to carry the occasion on its own. The original run had singing actors not acting singers. Le Roi was probably known to—and inspired—Gluck, Mozart, Paisiello, even Beethoven and Rossini, but they each outdid their model. But it passed a charming evening, displaying another piece of the puzzle of how composers learned to use musical forms to dramatic effect, and how this blossomed into later, more elaborate opera. Marie Antoinette had her faults, but no one denies she had taste.

Le-Roi-8469.gifScene from Le Roi et le Fermier

The Opera Lafayette cast sang French so well one was puzzled anew at their not being trusted to speak the dialogue as well. But many of these singers, who have impressed me on other occasions, in other halls, in far more difficult music (Handel, for example) seemed to lack bottoms to their voices in the Rose Theater. Does the hall cut off the lower notes (I sat in Row H) or were they not fully in command of their parts yet? Or did they underestimate the task required of them? Monsigny does not call for grand opera accomplishments and the ranges are smaller than Rameau or Gluck would demand, but miscalculation was in the air.

Dominique Labelle, in Marie Antoinette’s role of Jenny the shepherdess, was a case in point. Stunning as Handel’s Angelica in last summer’s Mostly Mozart Orlando, she had little use on this occasion for high notes or ornamentation, and her upper register was lovely—but low notes faded out. Her farmer, baritone William Sharp, was a suitable match for he suffered from the same defect: good phrasing, forthright mime, and a lower register that faded like woodland fog. They warmed up, but we did not warm to them.

The opera’s vocal bravado was given, as politics and tradition demanded, to its rankiest character, the King, tenor Thomas Michael Allen, obliged to sing of the glories of heroic battle because this is a fairy tale and the king must be brave as well as magnanimous. He did not have the serious grandeur, the glitter in alt that one might have hoped for in a monarch, and like the farmer hosts who insist that he sing for his supper, we were obliged to be indulgent.

Smaller roles were more happily filled. Yulia Van Doren, in stiff pigtails to symbolize her character’s age (fourteen), sang her little chanson deliciously (she’s kissed the king and been slapped by her mother) and made a convincing mime of childishness. Delores Ziegler held down the mother’s contralto lines well in the exquisite trio. The noble nitwits (who wears court wigs and satin in the woods?) were Jeffrey Thompson and Tony Boutté; the bluff and foolish deputies who arrest them (Charles X’s part) were Thomas Dolié and Jeffrey Newman, singing with great sturdiness. The Opera Lafayette orchestra was small but effective, making all Montigny’s delicate points with grace and Gallic lightness.

John Yohalem

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):