January 26, 2012

(++++) SMALL COMPANY, BIG SUCCESSES

François Rebel and François Francœur: Zélindor, roi des Sylphes; Suite from “Le Trophée.” Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, Heidi Grant Murphy, William Sharp, Ah Young Hong; Opera Lafayette Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Ryan Brown. Naxos. $9.99.

Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny: Le Déserteur. William Sharp, Dominique Labelle, Ann Monoyios, David Newman, Eugene Galvin, Tony Boutté, Darren Perry; Opera Lafayette conducted by Ryan Brown. Naxos. $19.99 (2 CDs).

François-André Danican Philidor: Sancho Pança, gouverneur dans l’île de Barataria. Darren Perry, Elizabeth Calleo, Karim Sulayman, Meghan McCall, Tony Boutté, Eric Christopher Black, Andrew Sauvageau; Opera Lafayette conducted by Ryan Brown. Naxos. $9.99.

     Opera, music’s original multimedia spectacle, is very much an acquired taste – one that even many who enjoy other forms of classical music never acquire. Nearly all opera companies therefore face an ongoing struggle to bring in enough funds to allow quality productions to continue. The smaller the company, the tougher the battle; cutting corners in staging, singing, orchestral size and chosen repertoire tends to be the norm. Let us therefore celebrate Opera Lafayette, a small, period-instrument company in Washington, D.C., that not only avoids many of the compromises typical in the field but also eschews the temptation to bring in audiences by offering only well-known operas – instead producing consistently high-quality productions of unfamiliar works of the Baroque and Classical eras, with a focus on 18th-century French operas but a willingness to explore other areas as well.

     Naxos has issued a string of very fine Opera Lafayette recordings, including Gluck’s Orphée et Euridice in 2005, Antonio Sacchini’s Oedipe à Colone in 2006, a disc of Rameau arias in 2007, and Lully’s The Tragedy of Armide in 2008. The three most-recent releases are at the same high level as the earlier ones, with artistic director and conductor Ryan Brown bringing consistency to performances that often feature different soloists because – as is typical in smaller opera companies, and even in some larger ones – the singers may be brought aboard only for one work, or may stay with the company for a while and then move on.

     The CD of the complete Zélindor, roi des Sylphes and excerpts from Le Trophée shows just how willing Opera Lafayette is to explore little-known repertoire. Zélindor was a royal entertainment for the court of Louis XV, first performed in 1745 – at a time when opera (or a combination of opera and ballet, like this work) was intended as none-too-serious entertainment, giving members of the court a chance to listen to pleasant music, watch some interesting dances, and chat and flirt and gossip and indulge in political infighting all the while. The music here is not always riveting, and was not intended to be: it was, to an extent, the 18th-century equivalent of background music. Yet there is verve and considerable pleasure to be had in this sequence of dances built around a thin and typical plot of the love between a god and a mortal. The Le Trophée excerpts – dances plus two arias – are of the same sort, being pleasant and aurally attractive but not overly challenging to the sophisticated ears and minds of the courtiers for whom the music was created. Tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt is particularly good in both the works, singing parts written for very high tenor – and without use of falsetto – with clarity and considerable style.

     Le Déserteur and Sancho Pança are more traditionally operatic, even though both are almost completely unknown today. Monsigny (1729-1817) and Philidor (1726-1795) were both highly regarded in their day; each here produced an opera-comique suited perfectly to the taste of the time. Le Déserteur is the more substantial work, as is clear not only from the recording (which presents only the music) but also from the plot (explained in the accompanying booklet). Sentimental and filled with pathos, although not tragedy, this is an early version of the French rescue opera, a form now best known through Beethoven’s adaptation of it in Fidelio. Highly melodic and musically quite varied, Le Déserteur swings from comedy to drama and back again time after time, following a story in which Louise (Dominique Labelle) eventually succeeds, after many difficulties, in saving her fiancé, Alexis (William Sharp), from prison and a sentence of death. Well sung and well paced by Opera Lafayette, the work is not especially memorable musically and remains something of a historical curiosity, its libretto’s humanitarian ideas being somewhat more forward-looking than its music. But it is pleasant, entertaining and even manages to tug at the heartstrings from time to time.

     Sancho Pança, gouverneur dans l’île de Barataria, on the other hand, aims not for the heart but for the funnybone: based loosely on Cervantes’ Don Quixote, it is a bit like an 18th-century musical comedy, with the self-important Sancho Pança (Darren Perry) being repeatedly undermined in his delusions of grandeur by the residents of the fictitious island where he is governor. Cervantes himself generated considerable amusement at the expense of Don Quixote’s “squire,” thus making it possible to turn the self-deluded Quixote into a tragicomic and at times even tragic figure. Philidor’s work seeks no depth, offering a series of short scenes in which the “governor” is at the center of one amusing occurrence or another. As in Le Déserteur, the music is not particularly memorable in itself, but it bubbles along pleasantly and has just the effect of lighthearted entertainment that the composer intended; soprano Meghan McCall, who sings three roles, is particularly well-suited to the comic banter. Opera Lafayette’s exceptionally idiomatic approach to this and the other works recorded by Naxos shows that the opera world has far more to it than most operagoers realize – and that smaller companies, when well run and dedicated to creativity, can offer experiences that, although they are outside the opera mainstream, can be every bit as enjoyable as the umpteenth rendition of the best-known works in the operatic universe.

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