The mission of Opera Lafayette, to perform largely forgotten French operas of the 17th and 18th centuries, is so important and so near and dear to my musicologist's heart that it might seem ungrateful not to praise every one of their performances to the skies. Thanks to the leadership of conductor Ryan Brown and the veteran hands of his talented instrumental ensemble, the group's musical performances are always stylish and a delight for the ears, with greater or lesser pleasure depending on the vocal casting, which is generally quite good. The question that must be asked, including of their latest performance on Saturday night -- the modern world premiere of Le Magnifique by André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry (1741-1813), at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater -- is whether or not the work revived holds interest beyond a first hearing. Opera Lafayette's performances are always worth the listener's time, even when one of these forgotten works turns out to be justly forgotten, and their recordings of hitherto unrecorded works merit a place on every library's shelf, but is there any interest for reasons beyond the obvious musicological ones?
D. Charlton, Grétry and the Growth
Le Magnifique was first performed at the Comédie-Italienne on March 4, 1773. It was Grétry's first experience working with a libretto by Michel-Jean Sedaine, who was formerly the collaborator of Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny (on Le Déserteur, among others). Grétry was lucky to work with some excellent librettists, Voltaire not least among them: Sedaine took the story from La Fontaine, who in turn had adapted it from Boccaccio's Decameron (Day Three, Novella Five), in which a man arranges a tryst with another man's wife during a meeting where the wife is not allowed to speak. The ruse in Boccaccio is that he "speaks" for both of them, with the woman's implicit approval, giving instructions that she later follows to the letter. Sedaine changes the pursuit from an adultery to the courtship of a sheltered girl, Clémentine, by a Florentine grandee named Octave. Known as Le Magnifique, Octave has generously paid his own money to rescue Clémentine's father, Horace, and his servant, Laurence, from slavery, into which they were sold following a shipwreck nine years earlier.
Tenor Emiliano Gonzalez Toro
Grétry's characters can often be identified by melodic motifs that pepper their arias, like Aldobrandin's octave-leap motif that sounds like a donkey braying, which French specialist tenor Jeffrey Thompson incorporated into his antic characterization of the role. The best singing came in the American debut of Swiss tenor Emiliano Gonzalez Toro (pictured above), who was imposing and polished as Le Magnifique, a voice of impressive power and even distribution over the role's considerable range. As Clémentine, soprano Elizabeth Calleo sounded much as she did in Opera Lafayette's revival of Philidor's Sancho Pança dans son isle last spring: some lovely high notes but an overall vocal production that was tight in the jaw and that wilted flat and sounded a little shallow at the top and rather pale at the bottom. Karim Sulayman, who was announced as ill, drew attention to himself mostly for a grotesquely hammy performance as Aldobrandin's silly servant Fabio. Douglas Williams had a promising, solid sound as Laurence, and Randall Scarlata was authoritative as the narrator of Nick Olcott's time-saving compression of the French spoken dialogue, who then steps into the action as Horace. The relatively effective semi-staging, with no dancing, was the work of Catherine Turocy.
Joe Banno, Opera Lafayette's 'Le Magnifique' (Washington Post, February 7)
Emily Cary, Opera Lafayette performs the modern premiere of 'Le Magnifique' (Washington Examiner, January 29)
This opera will be repeated on Wednesday (February 9, 7:30 pm), in the Rose Theater at Lincoln Center in New York City. The final performance of Opera Lafayette's season will be Handel's Acis and Galatea (April 5, 7:30 pm), in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.