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Opera Lafayette: Philidor's 'Sancho Pança'

Composer and chess expert François-André Danican Philidor
Opera Lafayette closed its 15th anniversary season with the first modern American revival of Sancho Pança dans son isle, a 1762 opéra-comique by François-André Danican Philidor (1726–1795), in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. A slender work, clocking in at 90 minutes without intermission, it turned out to be the low point in a year of striking successes. The performance of Gluck's Armide drew a capacity audience to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, a venue far more vast than the company's normal haunts, and the one concert last fall was a pleasing performance of Charpentier's Les Arts Florissants. Antoine-Alexandre-Henri Poinsinet (1734–1769) created the libretto of Sancho Pança from a particularly mean-spirited passage in Cervantes' Don Quixote. The knight of the mournful countenance has promised his simple-minded squire, Sancho Panza, the governorship of an island for his faithful service — a dream that the duke and duchess featured in Part 2 fulfill as part of an elaborate series of tricks played on Don Quixote and Sancho. When faced with the "real demands" of governing this imaginary land — the island of Barataria — Sancho quickly renounces all interest in being a governor.

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.
Other Reviews:

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)
A weak work was not helped by a young, slightly raw cast and bare-bones production (directed by Catherine Turocy) that any university opera program would be proud to present. Both baritone Darren Perry (Sancho) and soprano Meghan McCall (Juliette et al.) have sounded much stronger in previous outings than they did here. Perry had the most present voice in a cast that was often covered by the small, generally good orchestra of period instruments, even though it was placed in the pit for this performance, but both the top and bottom of his range were a little ragged. Karim Sulayman (Lope Tocho et al.) and character tenor Tony Boutté (Le Docteur et al.) contributed more in terms of character and comic timing than vocal quality. While the opera largely deserves the obscurity it had lain in for all this time, there are numbers worth hearing, not least Sancho's boule aria, in which he imagines his travails on the island making him like a ball bounced around every which direction in a children's game, and that same duel duet for Sancho and Don Crispinos that Grimm singled out in his pithy review. For the historically curious, Opera Lafayette has plans to release a recording of the work in its series for Naxos.

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).

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