Promoting Historically-Inspired Performances of Early Music and Baroque Opera
Le Déserteur (1769) by Monsigny & Sedaine
Reviewed by John Wall
Opéra-comique with libretto by Michel-Jean Sedaine and music
by Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny (1729-1817)
Among the elite, opéra-comique was a less prestigious form of entertainment in 18th Century France than the productions of the Paris Opera, but it enjoyed great popularity with the public from the mid-18th Century well into the 19th Century. Even before Grétry emerged as the most popular composer of opéra-comiques in the 1770s, they already had spread throughout Europe. Gluck composed seven opéra-comiques for Vienna, including settings of Sedaine’s first libretto, Le Diable à quatre in 1756-57. English language versions of opéra-comique were performed in England and America, including a reworking of Le Déserteur by Charles Dibdin.
Following the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue (Haiti) and the revolution in France, some French performers of opéra-comique sought refuge in the new United States while others settled at the New Orleans opera. In his interesting program notes about the history of Le Déserteur in America, Ryan Brown reports that Le Déserteur was performed six times at the Théâtre Français in Charleston between 1793 and 1796 and 19 times in New Orleans between 1805 and 1827. Nevertheless, I am aware of no recent American revival of an opéra-comique prior to the Opera Lafayette performances of Monsigny & Sedaine’s Le Déserteur in Washington and New York.
Opéra-comique is an art form that defies literal reproduction today. As in the case of Charpentier’s music in the 17th Century, opéra-comique was hampered by the Paris Opera’s monopoly. The license granted to the Opéra-Comique banned productions in the Italian language, sung recitative, and choruses. The orchestra was small not only due to regulation but because of a small orchestra pit in the opera house where opéra-comiques were performed.
If the spoken recitative is omitted, most opéra-comiques will fail to make sense. However, spoken recitative, regardless of language, has not gone over well in revivals of German singspiel. It would require considerable work for questionable benefit if spoken recitative were attempted in revivals of opéra-comique. At least the musical movements in opéra-comique contain essential elements of the plot, unlike much of the incidental music in English semi-operas. Le Déserteur actually comes reasonably close to telling a complete story in the musical numbers.
Once again, the Opera Lafayette team found a creative solution to the difficulties of historically informed staging. In their productions of Lully’s Armide, Francoeur & Rebel’s Zélindor, and Mozart’s Idomeneo, costumed dancers with the New York Baroque Dance Company mimed the action and performed the dances. For Le Déserteur, Opera Lafayette engaged John Lescault, a highly experienced and capable professional actor, to serve a function analogous to that of Anton Walbrook in Max Ophuls’ film La Ronde.
Mr. Lescault, dressed in period costume with a three-cornered hat, acted as the master of ceremonies, delivering a narration written by Nick Olcutt with Ryan Brown that introduced the characters and concisely covered the material in the omitted spoken recitative while tying together the arias. He was ably assisted by Caroline Copeland of the New York Baroque Dance Company, who not only performed the few dances in Le Déserteur but interacted with Mr. Lescault and the singers, performed pantomime, and turned over large posters with intertitles which were most helpful in understanding the action. In addition, a libretto with all the musical texts and an English translation was included in the program, and the lights were left on bright enough to read the texts.
The libretto is a prison drama where the hero (Alexis) spends two acts on death row before a last minute reprieve and happy ending. There are both serious and comic characters, which is the norm in opéra-comique. Monsigny’s music is striking for it’s complete incorporation of musical styles that attained popularity outside of France while Parisians were debating the relative merits of Rameau and Lully. There is a substantial overture, which sounds like it might have been composed by the young Haydn. The style of most of the arias is closer to a simplified Gluck. All or nearly all are in a da capo form. The most challenging, heroic arias were written for Louise and performed admirably by soprano Dominique Labelle. While sung recitative and choruses were ostensibly banned in opéra-comique, there are several extended accompagnatos within musical movements, and there is grand finale chorus, during which members of Opera Lafayette held up posters with the lyrics for audience participation. It was a privilege to see and hear this production in Rose Theatre, which is an exceptional venue for baroque opera. You can hear Le Déserteur for yourself next year when a recording will be released on Naxos.
Opera Lafayette convened a panel of experts for a seminar on opéra-comique held in Washington, which I unfortunately was unable to attend. To learn more about opéra-comique, I highly recommend David Charlton’s book Grétry and the Growth of Opéra-Comique. (Cambridge University Press 1986, paperback reprint due in February 2011). Although Grétry was by far the most popular composer of opéra-comiques in pre-revolutionary France, Le Déserteur was performed more often during the decade of 1771-1780 than any other opéra-comique not by Grétry with 154 performances. (Charlton, p. 66). For a detailed analysis of the seven opéra-comiques composed by Gluck, see Bruce Allen Brown’s Gluck and the French Theatre in Vienna. (Oxford University Press 1991).
Charles Downey found two copies of the first edition score of Le Déserteur in the Library of Congress, including a conductor's or prompter's copy with handwritten annotations. See his review for details of the original instrumentation and some of the comedy lost in the conversion to a simplified English narrative.
The next opéra-comique production by Opera Lafayette & The New York Baroque Dance Company: