04 September 2013

CD REVIEW: Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny – LE ROI ET LE FERMIER (T. M. Allen, W. Sharp, D. Labelle, T. Dolié, J. Thompson; NAXOS 8.660322)

Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny: LE ROI ET LE FERMIER (NAXOS 8.660322)PIERRE-ALEXANDRE MONSIGNY (1729 – 1817): Le Roi et le fermier—T. M. Allen (Le Roi), W. Sharp (Richard, le fermier), D. Labelle (Jenny), T. Dolié (Rustaut), J. Thompson (Lurewel), D. Ziegler (la Mère), Y. Van Doren (Betsy), D. Newman (Charlot), T. Boutté (le Courtisan); Opera Lafayette; Ryan Brown [Recorded at Dekelboum Hall, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland, on 23 and 24 January 2012; NAXOS 8.660322; 1CD, 72:12; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, and all major music retailers]

Contemplation of rediscovered gems of French music from the middle of the 18th Century prompts thoughts of quaint pieces composed for occasions celebrated by long-forgotten aristocrats.  The circumstances of the genesis of Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny’s Le Roi et le fermier, an opéra comique in three acts (here recorded without its dialogue), lack the noble patronage bestowed upon many operas of the age, but the score nonetheless has an extraordinary royal pedigree.  First performed at the Comédie italienne in Paris in November 1762, Le Roi et le fermier was performed in French—still the language of the Imperial Court—in Vienna a year later, where it may well have been heard by the seven-year-old Archduchess Maria Antonia, the fifteenth child of Empress Maria Theresa.  A dozen years after Le Roi et le fermier took Vienna by storm, that little Archduchess became queen consort of France, and she brought with her to Versailles the impeccable music training that she obtained in her youth at the Austrian Court, where her tutor was no less than Gluck.  Accomplished as a dancer, singer, and instrumentalist, the first spectacle mounted at Versailles in 1780 by the music-loving Marie-Antoinette was Le Roi et le fermier, in which the rôles of Jenny and Rustaut were performed by the Queen and her brother-in-law, the eventual King Charles X.  Remarkably, the sets for Marie-Antoinette’s presentation of Le Roi et le fermier for the Royal Family survive and were restored for Opera Lafayette’s performances of the opera at the Théâtre de la Reine, the small theatre near the Petit Trianon where Marie-Antoinette staged her elaborate musical entertainments.  The French Revolution dealt the same destruction to the popularity of Monsigny’s music that it wrought on the monarchy, but even as his music increasingly lay in obscurity the composer’s importance to the transition in French music from the Baroque models of Lully and Rameau to the fully-fledged opéra comique of Grétry and Auber was recognized by both Monsigny’s contemporaries and subsequent generations.  Now, Ryan Brown, Opera Lafayette, and NAXOS do for Le Roi et le fermier what they have done for several of the tarnished treasures of 18th-Century French music by releasing a recording that treats the score not like a dusted-off artifact but as a vibrant, still-fresh work that has simply been awaiting the emergence of a group of musicians capable of giving it the brilliance it enjoyed when a Queen masqueraded as a country girl.

The score of Le Roi et le fermier occupies an intriguing niche in 18th-Century French music.  The legacy of Lully is audible, as is the manner in which Rameau fused the French style that he inherited from his musical ancestors with elements of the Italianate traditions that were laying siege to Paris during his career.  The fantastically evocative ‘Orage’ in Le Roi et le fermier would not sound out of place in Rebel’s Les Élémens or even in Mozart’s Idomeneo.  Not surprisingly for a French opera that premièred in 1762, the same year in which Orfeo ed Euridice was first performed in Vienna, there is an inescapable kinship with Gluck, though Monsigny’s music already leans in the direction of Gluck’s ‘reform’ operas of a decade later.  What is surprising for a composer whose music has not enjoyed wide exposure, at least outside of France, in the two centuries since his death is that Monsigny’s work in Le Roi et le fermier displays such originality.  Dramatically, the opera is hardly unique: its plot of a King taking refuge among his subjects, a descendent of the Arcadian intermezzi of the Baroque in which deities pursued their agendas in the guises of common folk, was popular throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries.  The British setting is unusual for a French opéra comique composed prior to the spread of the influence of Sir Walter Scott’s work beyond the British Isles, but Monsigny was unafraid of offering his audience pointed social satire with an English accent.  In the basic elements of the drama, Le Roi et le fermier is not unlike Rossini’s La donna del lago, adapted from Scott’s The Lady of the Lake.  Monsigny’s vocal lines are typically French, but there are frequent flowerings of Italian-influenced cantilena.  Monsigny is thought to have studied with Pietro Giannotti, an Italian composer and teacher resident in Paris about whom little is known except that he seemingly was a disciple of Rameau, and it is suggested that it was a performance of Pergolesi’s La serva padrona in 1752 that compelled Monsigny to devote his career to composition.  The diverse ingredients that Monsigny assembled for his creation of Le Roi et le fermier produced a savory dish that far exceeds the quality of many of the frothy confections of 18th-Century French music.

As in all of their NAXOS recordings, the Opera Lafayette Orchestra and Opera Lafayette Artistic Director Ryan Brown again prove incomparably stylish interpreters of music like that of Le Roi et le fermier.  Though Maestro Brown avoids imposing any damaging idiosyncrasies on the music, he clearly understands that music of this vintage requires specific elements of grace and balance.  Foremost among the qualities necessary to give Le Roi et le fermier an opportunity to glow as brightly as it did at Versailles in 1780 is carefully-controlled but naturally-shaped rhythms.  Maestro Brown’s gifts for accurate but flexible articulation of the dance rhythms that serve as the foundations of the musical numbers in Monsigny’s score are apparent from the first note of the Ouverture to the last note of the final ‘Refrain à Grand Choeur.’  Under Maestro Brown’s direction, lyrical numbers flow with pliancy and poise, and the three showpieces for the orchestra—the Ouverture, the ‘Orage,’ and the ‘Air de Chasse’—ripple with energy and propulsion.  It is perhaps coincidental that music depicting a tempest and a hunt also figures prominently in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, but both the esteem in which Monsigny’s music was still held by connoisseurs throughout the 19th Century (Monsigny had been dead for less than four years when Berlioz made his first visit to Paris and heard Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride at the Opéra) and the similarities between the music in Le Roi et le fermier and the work of Gluck hint that Berlioz may well have been acquainted with Monsigny’s music.  The twenty-eight players of the Opera Lafayette Orchestra completely surrender their strings and reeds to Monsigny’s music, playing with verve and responding faultlessly to Maestro Brown’s beat.  Andrew Appel’s playing of the harpsichord continuo is noticeably clever but never distracts attention away from the singers.  It is difficult to imagine that even Marie-Antoinette could have assembled a finer group of instrumentalists than the Opera Lafayette Orchestra or engaged a more dedicated, knowledgeable conductor than Maestro Brown.

Well-trained as she was, it is doubtful, too, that Marie-Antoinette could have sung the rôle of Jenny more effulgently than Québécoise soprano Dominique Labelle.  In the ariette ‘Ce que je dis est la vérité même’ and, especially, the duo with Richard that follows, Ms. Labelle sings with total command of both the music and the character, making the most of her every appearance with singing of dash and charm.  She gives an appropriately sunny account of her Romance in Act Three, ‘Que le soleil dans le plaine.’  Likewise, her tone blends beautifully with her colleagues’ voices in the ensembles with Betsy and la Mère in Act Three.  Betsy is sung by soprano Yulia Van Doren with a disarming sense of youthful naïveté that in its way is as beguiling as Ms. Labelle’s more mature elegance.  Ms. Van Doren’s timbre is easily distinguished from Ms. Labelle’s in ensembles, and her singing of her ariette ‘Il regardait mon bouquet’ glitters with confused delight.  La Mère is sung with amusingly uncertain authority by veteran mezzo-soprano Delores Ziegler, who in addition to her very successful career in the world’s opera houses is now the Chair of the Vocal and Opera Division of the School of Music of the University of Maryland, on the campus of which this recording was made.  Ms. Ziegler here sounds slightly wobbly, especially as her vocal lines climb, but she anchors ensembles with Jenny and Betsy effectively and proves a deft comedienne with perfect timing.

Richard’s ariette in Act One, ‘D’elle-même et sans effort,’ an eloquently-appointed rondeau, is as beautiful a piece as any composed in the 18th Century, and baritone William Sharp—a familiar presence in performances and recordings of Early Music and Baroque repertory and a lauded participant in Opera Lafayette’s NAXOS recording—sings it with firmness, spot-on intonation, and no little suavity.  Mr. Sharp is a vital presence in the drama throughout the performance, and his singing never falters from the high standard that he sets at his first entrance.  A few of Richard’s lowest notes take him below his vocal comfort zone, but the voice retains its intense focus from start to finish.  Importantly, Mr. Sharp portrays Richard, the farmer of the title, with an earthy conviviality that makes his actions in the opera wholly credible.  Baritones Thomas Dolié and David Newman are similarly effective as Rustaut and Charlot, their voices lean but unfailingly filling Monsigny’s vocal lines splendidly.  One of the great innovations of Monsigny’s score is his closure of Act Two with a quartet for two baritones and two tenors, in which Rustaut and Charlot are joined by the Lurewel of Jeffrey Thompson and the Courtisan of Tony Boutté.  Mr. Thompson, a specialist in the unique haute-contre rôles of the French Baroque, takes high lines in ensembles in Le Roi et le fermier with panache, his upper register having a taste of stylishly tart (and authentically French) citron pressé.  He sings Lurewel’s ariette, ‘Un fin chasseur qui suit’ with manly, slightly repulsive swagger, all too eager to recount the details of Lurewel’s abduction of Jenny.  Mr. Boutté has less to do as the Courtisan—and it should be mentioned that this translates to ‘courtier,’ lest it be thought that this gentleman in Monsigny’s opera is a vocational cousin of Verdi’s Violetta—but all that he does is attractively congenial.

The opera’s most substantial number, the Act Two scene ‘Dans les combats,’ is given to the King, and tenor Thomas Michael Allen performs it in a manner befitting a royal personage.  Without the opéra comique’s original dialogue, le Roi seems a slightly peripheral figure in the drama, his presence more felt by the other characters than it is heard.  Still, he also has in Act Three the ariette ‘Le Bonheur est de la répandre,’ which Mr. Allen sings alluringly.  Like Mr. Thompson, Mr. Allen has won acclaim in the haute-contre rôles of 17th- and 18th-Century French opera, and his experience in both the operas of Monteverdi and the French Baroque repertory perfectly prepared him for Le Roi et le fermier.  Nothing in the King’s music is as challenging as Monteverdi’s great monologue for Orfeo, ‘Possente spirto,’ but Mr. Allen clears each of Monsigny’s obstacles with technique to spare.  He is also convincing in the King’s magnanimous emergence as the opera’s Deus ex machina in the penultimate scene.  Having a compelling farmer in Mr. Sharp, the performance should have been unbalanced without a regal, winningly benevolent King.  Fortunately, Mr. Allen fits that bill gallantly.

One of Klaus Heymann’s principal goals in founding the NAXOS label was to give forgotten composers the incredible gift of recording their works with world-class artists.  The NAXOS catalogue of more than six thousand titles is ample proof of the realization of Mr. Heymann’s goal, but this recording of Le Roi et le fermier reveals much about the guiding spirit of NAXOS and the dedication of the people who manage the label.  Monsigny is perhaps not completely forgotten, but which label other than NAXOS would have devoted resources to producing a recording of this quality of Le Roi et le fermier or any of Monsigny’s music?  The relationship between Opera Lafayette and NAXOS has yielded groundbreaking, opinion-changing results, and even among strong competition solely from their own collaborations this recording of Le Roi et le fermier is a marvel.  With this recording, the uncompromising musical integrity of NAXOS once again offers the public a crème brûlée for the price of a Hershey Bar®.