Friday, January 27, 2012

Le roi et le fermier: Il ne faut s'étonner de rien

The forces of Opera Lafayette are currently giving "Le roi et le fermier," Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny's 1762 opera, its "modern world premiere" on a tour which started in Washington, D.C., came to NYC on Thursday, and will finish up at Versailles. In musical and dramatic style, the piece is in transition between genres. (An early printing of the text by Sedaine calls it a "comedy with bits of music.") There is a great deal of dialog, a little recit, and quite a few ariettes and ensembles. The whole is, if not sensational, clever and charming, and the performers of Opera Lafayette put it across well.

Monsigny himself complained of the difficulties of mounting the piece, remarking that it needed not only an able musician and accomplished artist, but a friend who would trust him in his risky experiment with "a new genre of music." The plot was drawn from the English theater "or rather," according to Monsigny, "from an old story which has nothing but to substantiate it but tradition. Charles V or Henri IV (says tradition) got lost in a forest one night, as he was returning from the hunt. He took shelter with a woodcutter, and there experienced, for perhaps the first time, how a man behaves to another man when lacking, through ignorance, the profound respect which he ought to have for his king." Monsigny was enchanted by the dramatic possibilities this opened up for the articulation of truths about human nature and human society. The censors of 1762 were less delighted. Although the social critique seemed relatively gentle to my post-1789 sensibilities--wickedness lies in the abuse of power, not the system of power--it was sufficiently sharp to earn its composer respect in his old age as "Citizen Monsigny."

Although there are several interrelated dramas in "Le roi et le fermier," they orbit the main plot without becoming too confused. The fiancee of the virtuous forester is threatened with rape by a dissolute nobleman, who also confiscates the flock of sheep which comprises her dowry; the woodsman's younger sister has a bit of a crush on the elegant stranger; the forester's companions, hilariously, capture the dissolute nobleman while on the prowl for poachers ("Un coquin et un Milord peuvent se ressembler...") Monsigny's music is devoted to evoking the atmosphere of the forest in which the protagonists find themselves: the small noises of animals, the soughing of branches, and, most dramatically and most famously, a storm which builds gradually to form the entr'acte between Acts I and II. The strings, and the indispensable harpsichord, predominate, with dramatic exceptions for e.g. the horns of the royal hunting party. The Opera Lafayette orchestra played with spirit for Ryan Brown, but sounded unfocused at times, a possible consequence of the necessarily brief rehearsal time.

I was very glad to have all of Sedaine's witty dialog presented in its original French; this was accomplished by the expedient of having Didier Rousselet and Monica Neagoy as actor-speakers who handled (and sometimes acted out) the long passages of exposition while the singers pantomimed or formed tableaux. Rousselet and Neagoy might also comment, through mien or gesture, on the sometimes self-important conduct of the characters. That this functioned so smoothly may be partially attributable to the fact that Rousselet and Neagoy also co-directed the piece. The singing ranged from able to excellent, and was pleasurable throughout; I would say that the women had an edge on the men. In smaller roles, soprano Yulia Van Doren stood out as the pert young Betsy. In Pippi Longstocking braids, she managed to be charming rather than cloying, and sang cleanly and expressively, with attentive shaping of text.

Thomas Michael Allen, as the self-important king who receives an education, tackled boldly his (mock-)heroic tenor exploits, but struck me as slightly bland overall. Vocally charismatic baritone Thomas Dolié gave a vivid performance as Rustaut, one of the assistant foresters. His good-humored delivery made much of the brief air in which he comments wryly on the melancholy of the romantic hero and recommends the remedy of wine. William Sharp sang the role of Richard, the householder who offers the king hospitality and home truths, with nicely formed phrases. Sharp's elegant singing tended to counteract the volatility of Richard's outbursts. The effect was sympathetic, if slightly flattening to the contrasts between rage and romance, sarcasm and sobriety. Dominique Labelle, as his affianced, la belle Jenny, contributed emotionally direct and sweet-toned singing, handling the shepherdess' music gracefully. It all concludes in a joyous vaudeville acknowledging the precariousness of life's fortunes, and celebrating its possibilities. For exploring the opportunities afforded by Monsigny's delicate drama, Opera Lafayette is to be celebrated as well.


  1. Okay, I kind of want to see this now. At Versailles. Wouldn't that be an adventure...

    1. Apparently, Versailles is letting the company use the sets which were used when Marie Antoinette performed in the opera at the Théâtre de la Reine in 1780... to the "delighted surprise" of Opera Lafayette, according to the program note.

  2. Okay, now I really have to see it. May need to rob a few banks first, though.

  3. Very tempting indeed. Would like to go.

    Henri IV, I should think. He was known for going on an odd walkabout here and there to check on the people and was of course quite the celebrated ladies man. Charles V (another effective and well liked king - otherwise they wouldn't put them in the story, I suppose) was rather less robust and somewhat less well known for his amorous adventures and appeal to the fair sex.


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