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Reviving Grétry: Opera Lafayette's Latest

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?

available at Amazon
D. Charlton, Grétry and the Growth
of Opéra-comique
Grétry was a Belgian composer, born in Liège, who spent most of his life working in Paris. He received his musical education at the collégiale of St. Denis de Liège, where his musician father played the violin. When the boy was a teenager, an Italian comic opera troupe took up residence in Liège, and he was able to spend time listening to and studying the form from the orchestra pit. A period of independent studies in Rome left him fluent in Italian and worldly: his Mémoires, ou essai sur la musique is a delightful read. His works were the toast of Paris for a time beginning in the 1770s, although almost none of his fifty-odd operas, comic or otherwise, are remembered today in spite of having been performed not infrequently in the early United States. Only a few of them have been recorded, and sometimes not particularly well: exceptions include the Andromaque by Hervé Niquet and Le Concert Spirituel, La Caravane du Caire by Mark Minkowski, and Richard Cœur de Lion and a few others, championed for nationalistic reasons by Edgard Doneux and the Orchestre de Chambre de la Radio Télévision Belge, re-released on EMI.

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
Le Magnifique tricks Aldobrandin, the girl's deceitful tutor and guardian, out of his chance to force the girl to marry him. (Beaumarchais was working on a similar character, Bartolo, in his Le Barbier de Séville, which had been rejected by the Comédie-Italienne as a comic opera libretto the year before.) Although Clémentine is not allowed to speak to Le Magnifique during their 15-minute conversation, he tells her to drop the rose from her hand if she is pleased by his proposal of love. In his Mémoires, Grétry says that a friend of Rousseau's introduced him to the libretto: it was the rose scene that seduced him, he writes, although he sensed the difficulty of setting it to music, the longest such scene attempted up to that time, in his estimation. Grétry was a great melodist, and he was particularly talented at what contemporaries called déclamation, that is, creating musical lines that mimicked the meaning of the words being sung. An example of this in Le Magnifique is Alix's short, excited exclamations of "C'est lui!" as she thinks about the unexpected return of her husband from slavery in Turkey, which the fine soprano Marguerite Krull rendered with girlish nervousness in this performance.

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.

Other Articles:

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)
In essence, the operas of Grétry are a stepping stone, a way for later giants to stand on his shorter shoulders, to reverse an old metaphor. Mozart, who admired Grétry's scores, took what Grétry did with his ensembles -- like the lively Act I chatter trio and Act II finale in Le Magnifique -- much farther, and the earlier scores of Rameau and the later ones of Berlioz are of much greater interest in terms of orchestrational variety. Grétry gives most of the rhythmic interest to the violins, with the winds mostly doubling, except for a brief moment for the horns and woodwinds alone at the opening of Act III. The opera does contain interesting moments that have been singled out as important for the transformation of the opéra-comique into a weightier genre, not least the "extended mime sequence" of the overture, calling for a procession of extras (there being no chorus at the Comédie-Italienne and rather limited space). Grétry wrote in his memoirs that he observed actual processions of this kind when composing the overture: he quotes the Air d'Henri IV for the entrance of the priests and creates a cacophony of different melodies and sounds that are heard simultaneously. Horns and drums are used (perhaps overused) for martial effect, and the trumpets in the score are the first in the history of opéra-comique, according to scholar David Charlton. The closing music of Act III is supposed to accompany a final divertissement, a pantomime where Clémentine and Le Magnifique release the other captives from their chains, but in this performance, it served simply as the "bow music."

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.

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