Composer and chess expert François-André Danican Philidor
In adapting Poinsinet's libretto into an English version, Nick Olcott took a "meta-theatrical" approach, framing the outline of the action within the history of the troupe that performed it. Shortly before the premiere of Philidor's Sancho Pança, the comic opera companies of the Parisian foires were merged into the royally sponsored Comédie Italienne. Olcott's version plays with the rivalry of the factions and presents some of the history of this performer-led company, as they rehearse a new work, Sancho Pança, to present it to all of their voting members for approval: actor John Lescault (last seen with the company in Le déserteur) took the speaking part of Poinsinet himself and conductor Ryan Brown, with a hair-extending ponytail, stood in as Philidor. This adaptation had the benefit of compressing the work so that it could be performed by a smaller cast. It did little, unfortunately, to improve the work -- for all the shameless mugging and flogging of weak jokes, the piece was still leaden.
This should hardly be surprising, since on July 15, 1762 -- within days of hearing the premiere -- Baron von Grimm noted in his Correspondance littéraire with Diderot (my translation) that the work had "a mediocre success" because it was "burlesque without being gay," a description that so perfectly fits my reaction to this performance, in which one knew there were things that were meant to be funny but that mostly were not, I cannot improve upon it. Grimm goes on:
A poet who could not make something of the governorship of Sancho Pança should be strangled. M. Poinsinet did not know how to provide situations to the composer either. Except for the scene with the coward who fights with Sancho, dying of fear just like him, I hardly see anything in it that merits the name of situation; and worse, most of the airs do not have much effect. M. Philidor spent a lot on harmony and noise, and not much on melody or musical ideas. He repeated himself in several places; in others he borrowed bits from On ne s'avise jamais de tout and even Annette et Lubin. In a word, this new work by M. Philidor will not hold up to the reputation of Le maréchal ferrant.
Anne Midgette, "Sancho Pança" lumbers and sparkles at the Kennedy Center (Washington Post, May 26)
Tim Smith, Opera Lafayette takes comic turn with 1762 work about Sancho Panza (Baltimore Sun, May 26)
Plan now for Opera Lafayette's next season, which will include La Muse de l'Opéra (November 15, 2010), Grétry's Le Magnifique (February 5, 2011), and Handel's Acis and Galatea (April 5, 2011).