'Le Déserteur': It's Seldom Done For Good Reason
Washington Post, January 31, 2009
Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny, Le Déserteur
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater
What follows is some research on this opéra-comique that I could not use in the review. Hector Berlioz admired Le Déserteur for its dramatic ingenuity and cohesion, and Paule Druilhe, the author of the definitive biography of Monsigny, wrote that the work's "union of music and drama marked a decisive step away from the conventional comédie à ariettes." That is, rather than a silly plot that mostly just links together stock songs, Monsigny and librettist Michel-Jean Sedaine made a libretto that told a coherent story and that incorporated more complex musical numbers into the action, an unusual mix of comic and serious. A good example is in the prison scenes, where Sedaine balances Alexis's despair with the comic character Montauciel, who is drunk and full of insults. In fact, Karin Pendle called Montauciel "one of Sedaine's most remarkable characters," in her article published in Grétry et l'Europe de l'opéra-comique, edited by Philippe Vendrix. Monsigny dedicated the score to the Duc d’Orléans, a wealthy nobleman who became interested in the theater after an affair with a mistress who was a dancer; Monsigny had found his way into the Duc's service in 1768.
Heinrich Heine regarded the score as truly French music because of its "most serene grace, guileless sweetness, [and] freshness like wildflowers." Monsigny lived a long life (1729-1817), living through the French Revolution, but had a relatively short career. He was a sort of noble amateur who tried to make up for his lack of formal musical education with private lessons at various points in his life. Most listeners agreed that he had a natural melodic gift, and Grétry supposedly called him "the most tuneful of musicians." Druilhe attributes the "technical imperfections in his works" to the fact that he "relied on instinct rather than acquired technique," while the Baron von Grimm condemned Le Déserteur as the worst of Monsigny's works, an example of his poor harmonic ability and phrasing. Druilhe agrees that "his harmonic idiom has scarcely anything original to offer" but notes that his orchestration is innovative, like the dramatic use of drum in Le Déserteur.
Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny (1729-1817)
The Théâtre-Italien in Paris premiered the work on March 6, 1769, only a few years after the Italian Comedians and the Théâtre de la Foire had merged into the Théâtre-Italien in 1762. In the new troupe's first decade the orchestral forces were modest, estimated at twenty-two musicians, including the strings, two flutes or oboes, two bassoons, two horns, and one drum player (probably one of the string players who doubled on drum parts when needed). Information indicates that the chorus in the 1770s consisted of two or three singers per part. In one copy of the first edition of the score in the Library of Congress (M1500.M75 D3), the overture of Le Déserteur calls for two violin parts, viola, two oboes, two horns, two bassoons, and basse continue, although the bassoons often double the bass line and the oboes often double the violins.
The faked wedding scene (Act I, scene 5) calls for two violins on stage, as well as a musette and cornemuse, which are both types of rustic bagpipes. While they enter, there is a little piece called Marche des Gens de la noce, scored for strings and basse continue only). Monsigny calls for the tambour (drum) only to accompany the chorus of the king's troops (Act III, scene 12), and even then the drum is not given a notated part. Opera Lafayette, which had a separate percussion player on hand, understandably used drum much more often than that. The range of musical numbers includes simple, pleasing ariettes, dramatic set pieces, accompanied recitatives, duets and ensemble scenes, even a "fugue" (a trio with some clumsy contrapuntal sections).
Robert Levine, Opera Lafayette Presents Monsigny's "Le Déserteur" (Classics Today, February 5)
Paul du Quenoy, Le Deserteur, Opera Lafayette, Rose Theater, New York (Opera Critic, February 5)
John Wall, Le Déserteur (NewOlde.com, February 5)
Karren Alenier, Redeeming the Deserter (The Dressing, January 31)
Opera Lafayette's English narration removed many of the comic parts, often found in the witty dialogue, like the family talking over one another in the opening scene or dumb Jeannette's attempts to keep to the script she has been given. Her costuming indicates that Jeannette is supposed to carry a quenouille (or distaff, the part in spinning where you keep the unused thread, shaped like the plant we call the cattail or bullrush, found in swamps); she then pretends to look for her lost fuseau (spindle). Another copy of the first edition score in the Library of Congress (M1503.M765 D34), which I examined earlier this week, has French annotations made in pen, pencil, and colored pencil, apparently made by a conductor or prompter. Many lines of dialogue are crossed out, and there are cuts made to the musical numbers, too. Other lines and stage directions are added, and reminders of downward key transpositions are noted for more than one number (many of the roles have extended ranges). The Library of Congress also has some piano-vocal scores that record some of the English-language adaptations of Le Déserteur, as well as some of the ballet versions of the work.
Monsigny, Le Déserteur (excerpt), Théâtre Impérial de Compiègne (1994)