Opera Lafayette Gives Life to the Rare

Photo by Louis ForgetNew York, NY – As the overture to Monsigny’s Le Roi et le fermier stretched into the Rose Theater, shaking off years of dusty neglect, two gold busts flanking the stage slowly came to life. With the climax of the overture, the inanimate statues cocooned into the sentient playwright and his female partner in narration. It was an appropriate and seductively executed image to represent Opera Lafayette’s resuscitation of this forgotten gem the 18th-century opéra-comique tradition.

Since conductor and artistic director Ryan Brown founded the company in 1995, Opera Lafayette has carved a unique niche for itself by specializing in the revival of 18th-century opéra-comique. Opéra-comique, like its Italian cousin opera buffa, is the ancestor of modern musical comedy, plum with short, catchy songs called ariettes that are woven into the plot by spoken dialogue and musical interludes. The many operas written in this genre relied on conventions, formulas and predictable plot constructions, usually involving the comedic lives and loves of the proletariat. They were written in mass quantities, much like the cookie-cutter romantic comedies of our day, and were an alternative to the more serious, epic tragedies.

Photo by Louis ForgetLe Roi et le fermier, with a libretto by Monsigny’s frequent collaborator Michel-Jean Sedaine, stands out from the rest in its overt and brazen discussion of class and its fearless challenging of the infallibility of the ruling nobility. Much like Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, Le Roi et le fermier concentrates on the conflict between nobility and their servants – it even ends with a moralizing ensemble finale (significantly, the only large ensemble in the opera). Here the lesson learned is more radical than that in Figaro: nobility is acquired not inherited. The plot centers around the impending marriage of the shepherdess Jenny and the eponymous farmer Richard. The marriage plans are thwarted by the Lord Lurewel who abducts Jenny and keeps her dowry – her flock – captive within his castle. When Richard shows kindness to a nobleman in distress, who turns out to be the king, the goodness and hospitality of the farmer triumph over Lord Lurewel’s extravagance and artifice. The corrupt nobleman is banished and the king knights Richard and paves the way for their marriage by paying for Jenny’s dowry. Unlike in Figaro, where class distinctions are maintained, Le Roi et le fermier ends with a controversial reversal of power.

Monsigny’s music is rich with the elegance and grace that characterized the 18th-century style galant, but it is also surprisingly dramatic and descriptive. During the interlude between the first and second acts, the orchestra depicts the storm with vivid dissonances and tempestuous rhythmic imagery, expertly enlivened by Opera Lafayette’s period ensemble and the direction of Brown.

Photo by Louis ForgetJeffrey Thompson sang the role of the courtier-villian Lord Lurewel with great humor, lechery and aristocratic effeminacy. At times the role of Richard was too low for William Sharp to phonate effectively, but he still sang with an impetuousness and understated nobility ideal to the role.  Soprano Dominique LaBelle had the pleasure of singing Jenny’s declaration of faithfulness “Ce que je dis est la verité.” This aria is nearly Mozartian in its flawless beauty with a melody perfectly matched to Jenny’s pastoral simplicity. LaBelle was the stand-out voice of the evening; hers is an instrument of voluptuous purity and stylistic versatility.

As Richard’s fourteen-year old sister Betsy, Yulia van Doren completely embodied the character’s naivete and wide-eyed impetuousness. She impressed with her bright, effervescent tone. Delores Ziegler’s career-worn instrument was perfect for the role of Richard and Betsy’s mother, making up for any deficiencies in vocal production with the sort of professional commitment that one expects from her. Her animated facial expressions and reactions, colored with an aura of experience, were perfect foils to the youth of Jenny and Betsy.

The eponymous king was unevenly and cooly sung by tenor Thomas Michael Allen. It was only the roles highest moments that Allen’s voice strayed away from nasality and showed some warmth and sheen. But that is the danger of this repertoire: the music was not written for expert singers so that many of the roles lie in between traditional vocal categories. A baritone with an extension could sing the king; a tenor with strong low tones could sing Richard. It is up to the artist to tailor their role to the resources available.

The staging by Didier Rousselet and Monica Neagoy, who also doubled as the actors playing the busts-turned-narrators, focused on histrionic, stylized movements that complemented the stock characters on stage and flowed perfectly with the dramatic agency of Monsigny’s music. My biggest issue with their approach was the inconsistent use of Rousselet and Neagoy to recite the dialogue for the male and female characters. Any feeling of spontaneity that this may have suggested was weakened by the few scenes in which the singers themselves spoke the dialogue, interacting with either the other singers or the playwrights. The intention and affect were unclear and that caused frequent obfuscation of the clarity of narrative that is so important in a genre based in direct storytelling.

Photos by Louis Forget

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