Old French Delight Is Polished Anew By Opéra Comique

Tenor Michael Spyres is the coachman with high D’s in comic romp ‘Le Postillon de Lonjumeau.’ (Photos by Stefan Brion)

PARIS – Over the last decade, the Opéra Comique has revived an impressive array of French opéras-comiques that once enjoyed huge popularity among Parisian theater goers but whose style was sadly in decline. This month the troupe has scored a 21st-century hit with a former company repertoire staple not seen in Paris for 125 years: Adolphe Adam’s Le Postillon de Lonjumeau (The Coachman from Lonjumeau), which takes place in the mid-Paris suburb typically spelled Longjumeau. It took Michael Spyres, an American tenor with a solid high D and a prediliction for Berlioz-era French repertoire, to restore a once-popular gem to this centuries-old company.

Today in Longjumeau, a statue honors Adolphe Adam. (Alice Bloch)

Outside of France, Adam is best known for the Christmas song “Minuit, chrétiens!” (O Holy Night) and for his music for the ballet Giselle. He was in fact a very prolific and successful composer of nearly 70 works for the stage, including 36 opéras-comiques, as well as more than a dozen ballets. His father, a famous pianist and teacher, allowed Adolphe to attend the Paris Conservatoire only on condition that he find a career outside of music. Hooked on music theater, Adolphe found employment playing the organ and as a theater percussionist or chorus director, composing music for vaudevilles (light comedies with songs) on the side. In 1829 he first had his work performed at the Opéra Comique and scored a hit; in 1836, the success of Le Postillon de Lonjumeau spread beyond France – throughout Germany and even as far as Latvia, where the young Richard Wagner conducted performances in Riga.

In 1847 Adam quarreled with the director of the Opéra Comique and founded his own company to showcase new works, but in the chaos of the 1848 revolution the venture failed and he lost everything. He sold author’s rights to many of his works to settle his debts, and turned to music criticism for income. The Conservatoire created a teaching position for him, and he continued to teach and compose until his death in 1856. The popularity of his stage works endured through the 19th century; Le Postillon remains the most famous, in large part thanks to a celebrated Act I aria, which has been recorded by some of the best tenors of the 20th and 21st centuries. (Listen to a few stylish examples here.)

Chapelou, now known as opera star Saint-Phar, unknowingly woos the wife he left behind (soprano Florie Valiquette).

The story is typical of opéras-comiques performed under the auspices of the royal theaters  – that is, operas with spoken dialogue, not necessarily on a comic subject. Chapelou, the dashing village coachman, and Madeleine, the village innkeeper, have just married in spite of two fortune tellers independently advising each that the union would be a mistake. While Madeleine is off with her girlfriends, Chapelou entertains his friends with a song about the zesty bachelor life of a coachman. Passing through town, the Marquis de Corcy (Louis XV’s chief courtier and head of the opera) overhears Chapelou’s magnificent voice and begs him to come and sing for the king, offering fame and fortune. Chapelou accepts, leaving Madeleine broken-hearted on their wedding night.

Ten years later, Madeleine, now an heiress calling herself Madame de Latour, has moved to court, vowing to both punish and win back her husband. Chapelou, now known as Saint-Phar, the star tenor of the King’s Opéra, has fallen for a mysterious new lady in the audience and vows to win her, somehow not recognizing her as the wife he left behind. Spurning the advances of de Corcy, Mme. de Latour accepts the hand of Saint-Phar, who asks his hometown frenemy Biju (now Alcindor, who sings in the chorus) to help arrange a mock wedding. Alcindor instead supplies a real priest, making Saint-Phar a bigamist and giving the jealous de Corcy an excuse to get rid of him. Fortunately all is revealed before Chapelou can end up on the gallows, and he and Madeleine are reunited, vowing to live out their days back home.

“It’s bigamy!” concur French aristocrats upon learning that Chapelou was already married when he took new vows.

This silly plot could be straight out of Gilbert and Sullivan, but the dialogue is full of details about life during the ancien régime, and the music contains references to 18th-century French music as well as the more contemporary bel canto and vaudeville song. Anyone who has seen Giselle would recognize Adam’s gracefully melodic instrumental writing, but when unconstrained by the demands of choreography the composer could also handle voices and texts with skill. Solos, small ensembles, and choruses follow one another, punctuated by dialogue delivered in a declamatory style that would be right at home at the Comédie Française. A classical orchestra with a full complement of paired winds supports the wide range of styles.

Heading the production was Michel Fau, a one-man theatrical institution in France who has worked as actor or director in scores of plays and films, and just over a dozen operas. Creating his second production for the Opéra Comique, he infused this bonbon with a sincere joy that wasn’t afraid to laugh at its absurdities. Differentiating between action and contemplation, Fau mounted large ensembles using the full stage, with arias and intimate dialogues performed in a shallow space in front of a painted drop curtain. Vivid cartoon-like flats in saturated colors (sets by Emmanuel Charles, magically transformative lighting by Joël Fabing) underlined the unreality of the scenario. Luscious costumes by Christian Lacroix, with makeup by Pascale Fau, evoked the provinces and, more spectacularly, Louis XV’s court at Fontainebleau. The production became a fairy tale with heart and humor, seasoned with jokes about the opera world.

Michel Fau’s fanciful production, with sets by Emmanuel Charles, flaunts vivid cartoon-like flats in saturated colors.

The success of the production hinged on lead singers capable of doing justice to the technically difficult roles, especially a tenor able to scale the famous high Ds. Spyres has made a specialty of the repertoire once sung by early 19th-century French tenors like Adolphe Nourrit and Gilbert Duprez, who moved from bel canto to heavier French-language Donizetti and Berlioz. His voice is basically that of a baritone with a solid, high extension that he can deploy in full voice or voix mixte depending on musical need. He is also a fearless actor with deft comic chops and French style to burn, and he conveyed both the arrogance and appeal of the vain but charming coachman turned opera star.

In truth, those vaunted high Ds sounded better last spring in Spyres’ aria concert in the same theater. But on opening night they were spot on, in tune, and rang with conviction. I expect their execution improved after the high-stakes first performance. Not incidentally, Spyres’ excellent French was noted by audience members around me.

The Marquis de Corcy (Franck Leguérinel) tells Chapelou he’ll be a hit with the King.

The role of Madeleine/Madame de Latour was ably performed by the young Canadian soprano Florie Valiquette. Her bright timbre, agile coloratura, and feisty charm provided an apt foil for the tenor. Baritone Franck Leguérinel as the Marquis de Corcy combined declamatory flair with solid singing that anchored the ensembles. As Biju/Alcindor, bass-baritone Laurent Kubla was a comfortable sidekick (until he turned the tables as vengeful rival).

Sébastien Rouland, general music director of the Saarbrucken Staatstheater, conducted the Orchestre de l’Opéra de Rouen Normandie with energy and a relaxed sense of pacing. The excellent choral artists of accentus/Opéra de Rouen Normandie sounded and looked splendid. And a special mention is due Michel Fau as actor en travesti, droll in the speaking role of Mme. de Latour’s servant Rose. It was a true feel-good evening, and possibly the only French premiere I’ve attended where no one booed the production team.

Le Postillon de Lonjumeau runs in Paris through April 9. For information and tickets, go here.

A co-production with Opera de Rouen Normandie, the work will have three performances in Rouen December 13-17. For information go here.

Susan Brodie writes about music, the arts, and life from New York City and Paris. Follow her at @Susan Brodie (Twitter) and Toi Toi Toi!