It is always exciting to see a long-vanished work of music live again, especially an opera that comes back to life on the stage. This is what Opera Lafayette does, in earlier years in concert performance and lately on the stage of the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater and other venues. In many cases, the thrill of seeing the revival is where it ends, with the rediscovery of a work that one feels can then return to its well-earned obscurity, but once in a while one finds a work that deserves to rise more permanently from the dead. Les Femmes vengées, premiered in Paris in 1775, is such an opera, brought back to the stage in a production based on its original one on Friday night.
This is the matching wing of this season's infidelity diptych from Opera Lafayette, which began with a French version of Mozart's Così fan tutte last fall. As grafted on to each other in this pairing, Despina has married a painter, Monsieur Riss, and corresponding to the crossed lovers of Lorenzo da Ponte's libretto are two married couples. When the husbands begin to stray, making advances to Madame Riss, she plans a clever revenge, bringing their wives into the apartment. While the husbands watch and listen, hidden in a closet and unable to speak out for fear of betraying their own infidelity, Monsieur Riss is left alone with each of the wives and pretends to seduce them, advances that the women pretend to find tempting -- or do they pretend? The plot was drawn from Les Rémois, a rhymed conte by Jean de La Fontaine.
Michel-Jean Sedaine (1719-1797) had one of his greatest achievements in the witty libretto (Bibliothèque Nationale de France, département Littérature et art, YF-7275), full of instantly quotable bons mots like the concluding couplet that serves as an apt moral for upper-class marriage in 18th-century France -- "Pour rendre agréable la vie, / N'y regardons pas de trop près" (To make life agreeable, let's not look at it too closely). Opera Lafayette has been offering an unofficial mini-survey of the brilliant work of Sedaine, in operas he authored with Grétry and Monsigny. In Les Femmes vengées, Sedaine was matched with François-André Danican Philidor (1726-1795), a composer who disappointed in Sancho Pança dans son isle but here had a stronger text he could work with. For it he created a score (Archives de la Monnaie, TPAR 61) that, while not a masterpiece, is full of lively melodies and rhythmic sparkle.
At the time of the premiere, though it was Sedaine who was accorded the triumph, while Philidor's music was regarded as inferior to the achievement of the text. The first performances received a few intriguing notes in the Mémoires secrets pour servir à l'histoire de la république des lettres en France, depuis MDCCLXII jusqu'à nos jours (my translation):
March 24. The first day this very smutty work much amused the men, while the women did not know what expression to wear on their faces. It was necessary to censor something for the second performance, but the whole thing is somewhat (maybe very) delicate to treat, so it is not possible to change it.The rather long overture served as the backdrop for a dumb show to make the connection to Così, showing the newlywed Riss, husband and wife, enjoying a life of domestic bliss. Staging the overture is the expected gesture from director Nick Olcott, who has done it many times, but the longer the overture, the more of a stretch it is to believe that so much is happening without the characters talking at all. It was also a jolt to go from this added picture of the happy couple to the opening of the actual opera, with Madame Riss's shrill condemnation of unfaithful husbands and how to punish them. Claire Debono, as Madame Riss, was most effective in ensembles, sometimes a little brittle at the top of her range. As her husband, the painter, character tenor Jeffrey Thompson was way over the top in his kitsch gestures, both physical and vocal, but never dull.
March 26. All things considered, the play of Les Femmes vengées is the most beautiful one given at the Théâtre Italien for a long time. Although M. de Sedaine is not normally gay, led by his subject he could help but be so, because not to mention the humor of the dialogue, there is a continuity of plot, more preferable, of which one part is due to the author, but the rest owes much to La Fontaine. In a happy innovation, he came up with the idea of having all of the actors remain on stage by adding two side rooms, where the husbands are on one side and the wives on the other. [...] There are charming couplets throughout the piece and at the end. It is annoying that the music does not match up to the poetry as much as it deserves; this would be a true masterpiece (vol. 7:315-317).
Anne Midgette, Opera Lafayette effort to confect Mozart ‘Cosi’ sequel pales in comparison (Washington Post, January 20)
---, D.C.’s early-music company Opera Lafayette repeats the history that’s been forgotten (Washington Post, January 11)
Olcott's production, strong on acting direction in both dialogue and music numbers, unfolds on a graceful set, designed by Misha Kachman, apparently based on the set of the original production (Bibliothèque Nationale de France, département Bibliothèque-Musée de l'opéra), with its semi-open rooms on either side. Costumes, by Kendra Rai, were handsome and in an 18th-century style, while the lighting added to the pastel quality of the staging, which underscored the opera's qualities as a sort of musical equivalent of a Fragonard intrigue painting. In addition to the pieces noted above, the final sextet of the opera is a delight, with each character taking a verse, to charming instrumental variations of the orchestral music, punctuated by the moral couplet mentioned above. We sincerely hope that a recording of this charming comic opera is in the works for Opera Lafayette's series on Naxos.
This performance will be repeated, in a double-bill with Così fan tutte, at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater in New York on Thursday, and at Versailles’s Opéra Royal on February 1 and 2.