Lovers schooled

On Thursday night, the Washington, D.C.-based group Opera Lafayette graced the Rose Theater with a double bill of French opera… sort of. The first half consisted of Così fan tutte in French, the second François-André Philidor’s opéra-comîque Les femmes vengées, which slightly predates Mozart. It was ambitious and creative production that put a new spin on some very familiar material.

Nick Olcott’s production’s conceit is that Così makes more sense if you consider it as part of an eighteenth-century French tradition. The text is a vintage translation in verse, the recitatives are, like an opéra-comîque, made into spoken dialogue. The entire thing takes place in an artist’s studio, which brings up
some vague things about appearances and reality and also includes a
silent artist figure who became important in the second piece.The set is a basic set of walls and in period dress. There are a few novelties (the Albanians are now Canadians–not sure if that was the translation or a new idea but this is one production that takes the mustaches really seriously) and has the tone of a comedy of manners along the lines of The Rivals or The School for Scandal (to give some familiar English-language examples).

It proposes that the drama gradually moves from something very superficial and mannered (the staging uses many quasi-eighteenth-century poses) into more serious and sincere territory. Correspondingly, the finale contains a twist and the lovers end in their new pairing (Fleurdelise/Fernand and Dorabelle/Guillaume). The cast is engaged and enthusiastic, the Rose Theater is intimate enough to see all the detail, and this concept works pretty well. In fact, I think it probably would have worked equally well with the usual Italian text–perhaps that is missing the point, but the reason it works is that it finds an interesting angle on the text of Così, not because it says something about French theater.

It’s also nice to hear Mozart performed with a period orchestra, which
doesn’t happen very often in the US. The orchestra’s playing, under
music director Ryan Brown, was on the rough and ready side, particularly
in the winds, but it had a freshness and vigor that excuses some
messiness. The cast was mostly Canadian and French. Pascale Beaudin was a
wide-eyed, naïve Fleurdelise (Fiordiligi), and her voice is quite small
for this role, restricting the possibilities of her “Come scoglio.”
But, like Susanna Philips at the Met last fall, her “Per pietà” was
simply gorgeous and emotionally honest singing, much of it spent sadly
embracing the back of an empty chair. It was the highlight of the entire
evening. (I’m going to name the arias in Italian, because I didn’t
write down the French and it’s easier for you too.) 

Staskiewicz and Dobson

Blandine Staskiewicz was a perpetually guilty-looking Dorabelle with fruity tone and excellent comic timing. As Fernand, Antonio Figeuroa’s compact, somewhat nasal tenor made “Un aura amorosa” relaxed and almost disarmingly easy, but he didn’t seem to embrace the period style as fully as the rest of the cast and came across as quite modern. Alex Dobson was a natural comedian as Guillaume, if not always an elegant singer. As Delphine (Despina), Claire Debono had a chance to be witty and unaffected before everyone else, and her bright, focused soprano was one of the only I could hear working in a large opera house. Bernard Deletré’s Don Alfonso got some of his theatrical thunder stolen by Jeffrey Thompson mute artist.

The production’s second half was Les femmes vengées, a 1775 comic opera by François-André Philidor (today better known for his chess moves). It has a somewhat similar plot but predates Così by 15 years. An artist and his wife help two local ladies avenge their straying husbands (both of whom want to sleep with the artist’s wife). The staging made this story happen to the same characters from Così, only several decades later, sort of like the women’s revenge for the trick played on them years ago. (Regency fashions indicated that the French Revolution had transpired in the meantime, but no political references were made.) The artist was the silent figure from Così, now married to Delphine, and the two troubled couples are, of course, the lovers, who are now married.

The opera’s libretto, by Michel-Jean Sedaine, is surprisingly subtle in its development of the characters–well, subtle according to the standards of sex comedy, at least–but the problem is that the music isn’t. Philidor’s arias are charming and bright and pretty, but there’s little happening between words and music, and the kind of dramatization that makes the Da Ponte operas so incomparable is basically absent. (You can look at a first edition of the score online here if you’d like to see what eighteenth-century French engraved sheet music looks like or check out the score.) The same cast sang well and acted with rather more slapstick than in the Mozart. Debono’s role as the artist’s wife was more or less the central one, and her rhythmic acuity made the music come to life. As the artist, Jeffrey Thompson sang with a very slender but flexible tenor.

Beaudin and Figueroa

So it is supposed to be a lustiges Nachspiel, but it doesn’t quite work. The contrast isn’t between comic and serious (like in, say, Ariadne auf Naxos) but rather two separate styles of composition. It’s also all rather long: two operas in one evening, neither of which are short, is just more than one really needs. One is loathe, however, to cut any more of Così–the recits cut off some time, and we already lost Dorabella’s Act 2 aria and all of the optional Ferrando ones. (I unfortunately missed the end of Les femmes vengées, and I apologize for this, but the press person gave me a running time that proved to be incorrect by well over an hour. I stayed an hour longer than I expected until imperatives of public transportation compelled me to sneak out. Had I known the proper time I would have been prepared.)

Opera Lafayette doesn’t have the resources to operate on the level of a European group like Les Arts Florissants or the Theater an der Wien, but it’s nice to see an American ensemble trying something ambitious and creative in the pre-1800 realm.

Program Notes Plaudits
(the opposite of a Program Notes Smackdown): Nizam Peter Kettaneh’s notes are excellent.

“The French Così.” Mozart, Così fan tutte and Philidor, Les femmes vengées. Opera Lafayette at the Rose Theater, 1/23/2014. Conducted by Ryan Brown

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1 Comment

  1. I do prefer my Mozart and Handel on period instruments. I appreciate the financial imperative of having to use the house orchestra but perhaps some north american companies might clone the Zurich model.