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Opera Lafayette Makes Further Case for Grétry

Talise Trevigne (Mme. Hubert) and Sophie Junker (Denise) in L'Épreuve Villageoise, Opera Lafayette (photo by Louis Forget)

André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry (1741-1813) was one of those composers who enjoyed vast notoriety during his life and is now almost completely forgotten. His opera L'Amant jaloux played in the newly built Opéra Royal de Versailles in 1778, where Mozart may have heard it, and was the staged opera that reopened that theater in 2009. His operas were taken around the world, including to theaters here in the newly born United States. Opera Lafayette has not forgotten Grétry, branching out into later territory for a 2011 performance of Le Magnifique. This weekend the ensemble mounted a staged performance of the composer's slender but charming opéra-bouffon L’Épreuve Villageoise, heard at the second of two performances on Saturday evening, in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, a fine conclusion to the company's twentieth anniversary season.

Belgian soprano Sophie Junker brought a pretty voice, stronger at the top than the bottom, and lovely stage presence to the role of Denise, the village girl wooed by two men. Both hope to share in the farm she will inherit from her mother, Mme. Hubert, sung with a luscious sound by soprano Talise Trevigne. Baritone Thomas Dolié was a puffed-up La France, the nobleman who tries to woo Denise after having already failed with her mother, although his tendency to rush undermined many of the numbers in which he took part. As André, Denise's intended from the village, tenor Francisco Fernández-Rueda brought more rustic humor than vocal accomplishment. Ryan Brown led his orchestra of period instruments in a vibrant reading of the score, enlivened in the choral scenes by the addition of a rustic accordion on stage, and a small chorus provided enough of a flavor of the village festivities.

You can hear the parts of Grétry's bubbly score that likely made an impression on the young Mozart, especially the duets and ensembles that both move the action forward and delineate characters from one another. L’Épreuve Villageoise, set to the first libretto by Pierre-Jean-Baptiste Choudard, dit Desforges -- a colorful character who penned a wide-ranging memoir called Le Poète -- takes up the trend of paysannerie, the idealization of peasant speech and manners in worldly Paris and Versailles. Grétry provides a musical counterpart to the bad grammar and country idiom of the libretto's vivid characters, as noted by scholar David Charlton in his book Grétry and the Growth of Opéra-comique: "Repeated-note phrases, a restricted melodic range, and rather stiff rhythms gave rise to a music that seems to walk on short country legs. With a start of surprise the English-speaking music lover [hears] the prototype of ditties in Arthur Sullivan's Savoy operas. [...] It already enshrines the spirit of the American musical."

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Exhuming ‘L’Épreuve Villageoise’ for a fun evening, with a tried and true story (Washington Post, June 1)

Anthony Tommasini, ‘L’Épreuve Villageoise,’ a Rare Gem, at Gould Hall (New York Times, May 28)
Nick Olcott's staging got off on the wrong foot, as he does too often, by staging the overture with shenanigans, a moment that should break the visual tie to the real world through an absence of images. Shifting the opera to pre-Civil War New Orleans was an interesting nod to the transplantation of Grétry's music to the early theaters of that city, but to make the shift while completely ignoring the history of slavery in that region is too much, unless evoking the spirit of the minstrel show was what Olcott intended. The staging was so basic -- three screens with what looked like early printed depictions of a Southern plantation, plus some colorful costumes -- that it was easy to forget what Olcott claimed to be doing.

The next season from Opera Lafayette will include performances of Vivaldi's Catone in Utica (November 28 and 29), Chabrier's Une éducation manquée (February 2 and 3), and a selection of scenes from operas by Martini, Cherubini, and Sacchini (April 29).

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