Not quite magnifique, Grétry opera still proves enjoyable in modern premiere

February 10, 2011
By Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim

Elizabeth Calleo and Jeffrey Thompson in Opera Lafayette's production of Grétry's "Le Magnifique," presented Wednesday night at Lincoln Center. Photo: Louis Forget.

Amid the throng of marble statues in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of a nineteenth-century composer with windswept hair and furrowed brow, his shirt partly unbuttoned in a manner suggestive of creative turmoil. It used to grace the Opéra Comique in Paris and, when completed in 1809, caused a mild stir for marking only the second time a composer had his likeness sculpted during his lifetime. (The first was Handel.)

The immortalized composer is André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry, one of the most prolific and admired opera composers—in his time. In today’s history books, Grétry is mostly relegated to the footnotes as the author of “liberation operas” that paved the way for Beethoven’s Fidelio; among singers, he has occasional champions, like soprano Sumi Jo, who have added some of his coloratura showpieces to their repertoire.

Grétry’s opera Le Magnifique, which was this week given its modern premiere by the D.C.-based Opera Lafayette offers neither political nor vocal fireworks. Written in 1773 to a libretto by Michel-Jean Sedaine based on a La Fontaine adaptation of a story by Boccaccio, it is an essentially domestic romantic comedy with music that manages to bring to mind Handel and Gluck without ever achieving the melodic generosity of the one or the refined elegance of the other.  The music of the opera, presented Wednesday night at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall and last week at the Kennedy Center, never quite lived up to its title. And yet the cast of committed young singers under the direction of historical-performance expert Catherine Turocy offered a performance that was by turn touching and raucously funny.

The plot, set in Florence, centers on Clémentine, a young girl whose father was seized by pirates and sold into slavery. As her sixteenth birthday approaches, she finds herself courted by two suitors: her pompous tutor, Aldobrandin, who raised her in her father’s absence, and “Le Magnifique,” a town grandee whose munificence has helped free scores of captives and on whom Clémentine nurses a secret crush.

Le Magnifique manages to get an interview with her by trading his 2000-ducat racehorse for fifteen minutes with Clémentine during which Aldobrandin promises to remain out of earshot. The tutor, however, has instructed his ward to remain mute during this time, so that the only way she can communicate her feelings for Le Magnifique is by dropping a rose to the ground. In the final act, her father returns from captivity, as does the husband of her loyal servant Alix. Aldobrandin and his conniving servant, Fabio, are unmasked as the men who had purposefully sold them into slavery in the first place. The villains are dispatched, and Clémentine and Le Magnifique united under her father’s benevolent gaze.

Like most French comic operas of the time, Le Magnifique was conceived for a combination of spoken dialogue, orchestral interludes, and singing. For their semi-staged production, conductor Ryan Brown and Turocy opted for a smart mix of spoken English plot summaries, delivered by baritone Randall Scarlata–who in the end steps into the singing role of Clémentine’s father–and surtitle translations of the parts sung in French. For one brief scene in the final act, when the network of lies and deceits is untangled, the entire cast resorts to spoken French: a bold move, but one that worked surprisingly well. So did the decision to combine elements of eighteenth-century mime with modern-day tuxedos and black evening dresses. If the contemporary costumes helped bridge the distance between the audience and the unfamiliar work, the stylized gestures and mask-like facial expressions underlined the archetypal nature of the characters.

Chief among them was Clémentine as the shy girl on the cusp of sexual awakening, sung by Elizabeth Calleo with great warmth and feeling. Another was Karim Sulayman as the devious servant Fabio, whose blend of vocal and physical comedy raised the “racehorse” aria to the level of inspired silliness. There were times when the vocal slapstick threatened to take over at the expense of the music–Jeffrey Thompson’s Aldobrandin could have brayed a little less convincingly in his first appearance–but on the whole the production managed to negotiate the line with good judgment. Marguerite Krull’s Alix, in particular, found a perfect balance between humor and pathos, as in her first appearance when she thinks she spies the face of her long-lost husband in the procession of freed captives, driving Clémentine crazy with curiosity as she continues to say only “c’est lui!”

The Swiss tenor Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, making his U.S. debut, was announced as ill, but went on to sing with a beautiful, robust sound. The Opera Lafayette Orchestra produced some fine playing, erring on the more expressive, vibrato-rich side of “authentic” performance. After the startlingly original overture, which calls for off-stage drumming and a “chorus of priests” singing plainchant rendered in the cellos and basses, Grétry’s score offers few memorable moments. Only the ensembles at the close of each act produced truly lively music, with the vocal lines mingling and sparring in a delicious Mozartean “imbroglio.” At times like these, one could virtually hear the teenage Wolfgang laughing along while perhaps taking some careful notes.

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