Opera Lafayette has done it again, reviving a forgotten work of the French grand siècle. François Rebel and François Francoeur's Zélindor, roi des Sylphes, an opera-ballet produced at Versailles to considerable acclaim in 1745, may not be a masterpiece, but it is certainly worth hearing again. This performance, the ensemble's first in the Music Center at Strathmore, is the first modern revival of the work, just edging out the Ensemble Ausonia's concert performance next weekend during the Grandes Journées de la Musique Française at Versailles. It will be followed shortly by a world premiere recording on the Naxos label, scheduled for release in 2009. The libretto by François-Augustin Paradis de Montcrif, reportedly admired by Voltaire, is a Rococo cream puff of mythology lite. The characters are stand-ins for Louis XV (Zélindor, King of the Sylphs, who dares to love a mortal woman) and his newly found mistress, Madame de Pompadour (the beautiful woman Zirphé, who is compared to a zephyr, an obvious anagram of her name). We know we are in an exotic world because the characters' names all begin with Z.
Cecelia Porter, Opera Lafayette (Washington Post, October 6)
Anne Midgette, After 262 Years, a Sylph King’s Debut (New York Times, October 20)
Zélindor opens with a charming overture, in this case augmented by an authentic wind machine operated by the percussionist. The title role has a stunning aria in the first scene ("Comme un Zéphir"), with masses of running notes on the word "volage" (fickle or flighty). It is matched by the lovely slow aria for Zirphé that opens the second scene, and there are several worthy dance pieces, including the Air pour les Nymphes and Passepied in the third scene and the comic divertissment music in the fourth scene. In this performance Zélindor was reunited with the frankly less interesting Le Trophée, a prologue composed by Rebel and Francoeur for a performance of Zélindor in honor of France's victory in the Battle of Fontenoy.
Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, tenor
The singing was exceptional, especially from French tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, who has the light, ultra-high range so important for French opera in this period, which relied on the voice part known as the haute-contre. He stood out on the stage not only for the gorgeous sound of his rarefied voice but for the clarity of his diction and native pronunciation. In the first scene, for example, Fouchécourt sang the line "Cent fois pendant les nuits," in which the unimportant word "les" was placed on a very high note, and that note was perfectly placed, in tune, and completely unstressed. As Zirphé, American soprano Heidi Grant Murphy seemed small in the room, with impressive agility on the fast triplets of La Muse's aria in Le Trophée but with her top notes turning a little imprecise and breathy. There were fine supporting turns from William Sharp (Zulim) and Ah Young Hong (Une Nymphe and La Sylphide), who both teach voice at Peabody Conservatory of Music.
In general, the hall at Strathmore did not strike these ears as a good match for the ensemble, which came across as much more lost in the distance than in previous performances, at the Clarice Smith Center. The Opera Lafayette orchestra played very well, with shimmering contributions from the gentle flutes, a unified violin sound, and strong trumpets. Making room for the dancers of the New York Baroque Dance Company, the ensemble and especially the chorus were placed far back. The dancers added the right note of grace and fantasy, especially the charming salamanders.
Opera Lafayette will perform Zélindor, roi des Sylphes a second time at the Rose Theater in Lincoln Center, New York (October 17, 8 pm). Their next concert here in Washington, A Rococo Noël, will be presented at La Maison Française (December 2, 7:30 pm).