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

La forza del destino at Covent Garden

Prima la music, poi la parole? It’s the perennial operatic conundrum which has exercised composers from Monteverdi, to Salieri, to Strauss. But, on this occasion we were reminded that sometimes the answer is a simple one: Non, prima le voci!

Barbara Hannigan sings Berg and Gershwin at the Barbican Hall

I first heard Barbara Hannigan in 2008.

New perceptions: a Royal Academy Opera double bill

‘Once upon a time …’ So fairy-tales begin, although often they don’t conclude with a ‘happy ever after’. Certainly, both Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges, paired in this Royal Academy Opera double bill, might be said to present transformations from innocence and ignorance to experience and knowledge, but there is little that is saccharine about their protagonists’ journeys from darkness to enlightenment.

Desert Island Delights at the RCM: Offenbach's Robinson Crusoe

Britannia waives the rules: The EU Brexit in quotes’. Such was the headline of a BBC News feature on 28th June 2016. And, nearly three years later, those who watch the runaway Brexit-train hurtle ever nearer to the edge of Dover’s white cliffs might be tempted by the thought of leaving this sceptred (sceptic?) isle, for a life overseas.

Akira Nishimura’s Asters: A Major New Japanese Opera

Opened as recently as 1997, the Opera House of the New National Theatre Tokyo (NNTT) is one of the newest such venues among the world’s great capitals, but, with ten productions of opera a year, ranging from baroque to contemporary, this publicly-owned and run theatre seems determined to make an international impact.

The Outcast in Hamburg

It is a “a musicstallation-theater with video” that had its world premiere at the Mannheim Opera in 2012, revived just now in a new version by Vienna’s ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wein for one performance at the Vienna Konzerthaus and one performance in Hamburg’s magnificent Elbphilharmonie (above). Olga Neuwirth’s The Outcast and this rich city are imperfect bedfellows!

Monarchs corrupted and tormented: ETO’s Idomeneo and Macbeth at the Hackney Empire

Promises made to placate a foe in the face of imminent crisis are not always the most well-considered and have a way of coming back to bite one - as our current Prime Minister is finding to her cost.

Der Fliegende Holländer and
Tannhäuser in Dresden

To remind you that Wagner’s Dutchman had its premiere in Dresden’s Altes Hoftheater in 1843 and his Tannhauser premiered in this same theater in 1845 (not to forget that Rienzi premiered in this Saxon court theater in 1842).

WNO's The Magic Flute at the Birmingham Hippodrome

A perfect blue sky dotted with perfect white clouds. Identikit men in bowler hats clutching orange umbrellas. Floating cyclists. Ferocious crustaceans.

Puccini’s Messa di Gloria: Antonio Pappano and the London Symphony Orchestra

This was an oddly fascinating concert - though, I’m afraid, for quite the wrong reasons (though this depends on your point of view). As a vehicle for the sound, and playing, of the London Symphony Orchestra it was a notable triumph - they were not so much luxurious - rather a hedonistic and decadent delight; but as a study into three composers, who wrote so convincingly for opera, and taken somewhat out of their comfort zone, it was not a resounding success.

WNO's Un ballo in maschera at Birmingham's Hippodrome

David Pountney and his design team - Raimund Bauer (sets), Marie-Jeanne Lecca (costumes), Fabrice Kebour (lighting) - have clearly ‘had a ball’ in mounting this Un ballo in maschera, the second part of WNO’s Verdi trilogy and which forms part of a spring season focusing on what Pountney describes as the “profound and mysterious issue of Monarchy”.

Super #Superflute in North Hollywood

Pacific Opera Project’s rollicking new take on The Magic Flute is as much endearing fun as a box full of puppies.

Leading Ladies: Barbara Strozzi and Amiche

I couldn’t help wondering; would a chamber concert of vocal music by female composers of the 17th century be able sustain our concentration for 90 minutes? Wouldn’t most of us be feeling more dutiful than exhilarated by the end?

George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill at Wigmore Hall

This week, the Wigmore Hall presents two concerts from George Benjamin and Frankfurt’s Ensemble Modern, the first ‘at home’ on Wigmore Street, the second moving north to Camden’s Roundhouse. For the first, we heard Benjamin’s now classic first opera, Into the Little Hill, prefaced by three ensemble works by Cathy Milliken, Christian Mason, and, for the evening’s spot of ‘early music’, Luigi Dallapiccola.

Marianne Crebassa sings Berio and Ravel: Philharmonia Orchestra with Salonen

It was once said of Cathy Berberian, the muse for whom Luciano Berio wrote his Folk Songs, that her voice had such range she could sing the roles of both Tristan and Isolde. Much less flatteringly, was my music teacher’s description of her sound as akin to a “chisel being scraped over sandpaper”.

Rossini's Elizabeth I: English Touring Opera start their 2019 spring tour

What was it with Italian bel canto and the Elizabethan age? The era’s beautiful, doomed queens and swash-buckling courtiers seem to have held a strange fascination for nineteenth-century Italians.

Chameleonic new opera featuring Caruso in Amsterdam

Micha Hamel’s new opera, Caruso a Cuba, is constantly on the move. The chameleonic score takes on a myriad flavours, all with a strong sense of mood or place.

Ernst Krenek: Karl V, Bayerisches Staatsoper

Ernst Krenek’s Karl V op 73 at the Bayerisches Staatsoper, with Bo Skovhus, conducted by Erik Nielsen, in a performance that reveals the genius of Krenek’s masterpiece. Contemporary with Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten, Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, Berg’s Lulu, and Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, Krenek’s Karl V is a metaphysical drama, exploring psychological territory with the possibilities opened by new musical form.

A Sparkling Merry Widow at ENO

A small, formerly great, kingdom, is on the verge of bankruptcy and desperate to prevent its ‘assets’ from slipping into foreign hands. Sexual and political intrigues are bluntly exposed. The princes and patriarchs are under threat from both the ‘paupers’ and the ‘princesses’, and the two dangers merge in the glamorous figure of the irresistibly wealthy Pontevedrin beauty, Hanna Glawari, a working-class girl who’s married up and made good.

Mozart: Così fan tutte - Royal Opera House

Così fan tutte is, primarily, an ensemble opera and it sinks or swims on the strength of its sextet of singers - and this performance very much swam. In a sense, this is just as well because Jan Phillip Gloger’s staging (revived here by Julia Burbach) is in turns messy, chaotic and often confusing. The tragedy of this Così is that it’s high art clashing with Broadway; a theatre within an opera and a deceit wrapped in a conundrum.

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):