By Heidi Waleson
Opera Lafayette, the Washington, D.C.-based period instrument ensemble, specializes in presenting the works of obscure 18th-century French composers like Monsigny, Grétry, and Philidor. This season, however, there’s a twist. The staged production coming to New York’s Rose Theater on Jan. 23 and then traveling to the opera house at Versailles is a mash-up, beginning with Mozart’s Così fan tutte (1790) performed in French with dialogue, followed by Les Femmes Vengées, Philidor and Sedaine’s opéra comique of 1775 (an American premiere). The two operas will be performed on the same set, with the Philidor/Sedaine characters conceived as the lovers and schemers of Così revisited ten years later. (For logistical reasons, the two operas had to be scheduled separately in Washington, with Così in October and Les Femmes on Jan. 17.)
Ryan Brown, conductor and artistic director of Opera Lafayette, came up with the scheme when he was looking at Philidor operas to follow up on Sancho Pança, which the company performed and recorded several seasons ago. “It struck me that Les Femmes Vengées had the same number of characters as Così, and the plot was a mirror image, with the women manipulating the situation,” he says. “And with Così‘s ambiguous ending, if you choose to have Ferrando really be in love with Fiordiligi, and put the soprano and the tenor together and so on, you have the exact voice types of the married couples in Les Femmes Vengées.”
There were a number of challenges to the project, not least the fact that the operas are of two different genres and Così alone normally runs about three hours. Brown and director Nick Olcott came up with an ingenious solution. They found a late-19th-century French performing translation of Così, which noted that the accompanied recitatives could be done as spoken dialogue, opéra comique-style. They then trimmed the spoken parts and cut a few musical numbers, most notably some of Ferrando’s arias. This solved another problem as well: “We worried about the tenor and soprano actually being able to sing the full evening,” Brown says. The combined piece, with Così as the first two acts and Les Femmes as the third, now runs 4-½ hours with two intermissions.
Brown is intrigued at the way the two pieces speak to each other, and how Les Femmes illuminates the fertile musical environment that produced Mozart. “How do you get to Mozart? He doesn’t spring full blown like Athena from the head of Zeus,” he notes. Brown points out that Les Femmes was done eight times in Paris while Mozart was there in 1778, though there’s no evidence that the young composer saw it. “There was a French theater in Vienna, Gluck was writing a French opéra comique and being sent librettos from Paris, Les Femmes was done in Vienna right after it played in Paris, and so was Monsigny’s Le Roi et le Fermier. There was a flow of ideas, things in the air.” He also points out that Les Femmes and Così are both big ensemble pieces. Musically, he says, “The Philidor fills a gap of understanding, and makes it more fulfilling to do Mozart in this context. You see how extraordinary he was.”
Still, even staged with dialogue, the two pieces have very different effects, with the emotional depth of Così a contrast to Les Femmes, which, Brown says, is “clever, and very funny about infidelity.” What is more, the Mozart comes first in the plot, so how do you keep the Philidor from seeming like an anticlimax? “You have to think of the Philidor as dessert after a sumptuous meal of Mozart,” Brown says. “The Philidor is perfect for what it is. And it works in the plot: When you think of the youth and passion of the Mozart characters, and then these same characters ten years later, after they’ve been married for awhile, and the bloom is off the romance….” All the singers are either native French speakers or longtime residents in France, helping their command of the dialogue.
Another means of binding the two operas together is the set. Les Femmes, Brown says, was the first opéra comique that Sedaine wrote for a three-room set, and much of the comedy depends on the three couples being in three different places, so the audience can hear what they say, but they don’t hear one another. Olcott makes the setting the house of a painter, a mute character who has been interpolated into the action by the production team. The Così characters are having their portraits painted, and Delphine (Despina) marries the painter at the end, establishing her position as the architect of the wives’ vengeance in Les Femmes. Così has been moved from Naples, and the whole evening is set in France around the time of the Revolution.
Sets are a relatively new departure of Opera Lafayette. The company’s first fully staged production was Le Roi et le Fermier of two seasons ago, undertaken for their first visit to Versailles, which made available the original 18th-century flats for the show. Indeed, the company’s origins are musical rather than theatrical. Brown founded the group in 1995 as Violins of Lafayette to play French period chamber music in the Salon Doré at the Corcoran Gallery; he led from the violin. “I wanted to do the great repertoire of the period,” he says. Other projects then came up, like a concert of arias with Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, and the French version of Gluck’s Orphée at the new University of Maryland performing arts center. “In 2001-02, I realized that opera was what I wanted to do,” Brown says. “I put down the violin, studied conducting with Gustav Meir, and we made our first recording with Naxos.” Les Femmes Vengées will be the company’s ninth recording.
Staged operas with period instrument orchestras are rare in the US, other than the biennial Boston Early Music Festival productions and William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants operas, imported from Europe by the Brooklyn Academy of Music. As Brown points out, “There are structural problems that prevent early opera from taking off in the US, because all the opera houses and presenters other than BAM are tied to modern orchestras, and the big money goes to established institutions like them.” The more flexible European model (in which different orchestras can be used for appropriate repertoire), as well as the generous government funding that allowed Les Arts Florissants to grow, does not exist here. Opera Lafayette, which currently has a budget of approximately $1 million, rents its performing spaces and has been able to do its staged pieces thanks to the interest of particular funders, but is not expecting to grow into Les Arts Florissants-scale productions any time soon. “Compared to them, we’re a guerilla group,” Brown says.
Still, Brown is interested in exploring different kinds of stage production, not necessarily purely historical ones. Next fall, the company will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the death of Rameau with the opera-ballet Les Fêtes d’Hymen, using three different dance companies: one baroque, one Indian, and one modern. “The piece is a metaphor about peoples in conflict coming together, and I’m trying to make it clear by doing it with different styles,” Brown says. “I start with the question, what did they intend? You can be true to that, and still make it read for us today.”
Heidi Waleson is the opera critic for The Wall Street Journal and writes about the performing arts for a variety of U.S. and international publications.