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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

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