L’amant anonyme by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Haymarket Opera Company, conducted by Craig Trompeter. Nicole Cabell, soprano; Geoffrey Agpalo, tenor; David Govertsen, bass-baritone. Cedille (CDR 90000 217). 3 CDs or digital stream; total time 98:54.
DIGITAL REVIEW — Joseph Bologne (1745–1799), also known as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, devoted the last period of his career to writing vocal music, including six operas. Only one of those operas, L’amant anonyme (The Anonymous Lover), survives in completion, in a unique manuscript that’s apparently full of copyist errors. Thanks to the hard work of the Haymarket Opera Company, their director Craig Trompeter, and music editor Gregg Sewell, there is now a viable modern score and a worthy recording on the Cedille label.
L’amant anonyme was premiered in Paris in 1780. The libretto is by the French writer who called himself Desfontaines, based on a book by the well-known novelist Félicité de Genlis, one of Bologne’s patrons. Sweet and silly in plot, the book features a fun twist on the topsy-turvy trope: The widow Léonore has sworn off men (hers was an unhappy marriage), but she keeps receiving mushy letters and extravagant gifts from an anonymous admirer who will not be dissuaded from his pursuit. Throughout the opera, Léonore uses her friend Valcour as a sounding board to complain about the situation, and it’s only in the final scene that he admits that he is the anonymous admirer. Once she gets over her amazement, Léonore welcomes his advances, and the friends become lovers.
A greatly skilled craftsman, Bologne is as confident, clever, and sophisticated in his writing for voice as he is in his orchestration. Trompeter approaches the score as the masterwork it is, leading a performance drenched in emotional nuance, from light humor to pathos to exasperation — all the normal aspects of love, in other words.
From the opening overture in the Italian style, the playing is focused and intense. The Haymarket Opera Orchestra numbers only 19 players, allowing for an intimate string and wind sound. The rich sonics of the recording are owed to the expertise of engineer Bill Maylone and producer James Ginsburg. James is the son of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and this recording is the first to receive support from the recently founded Ruth Bader Ginsburg Fund for Vocal Recording.
In tenor Geoffrey Agpalo, who plays Valcour, Haymarket found a voice with the ideal combination of long-suffering frustration from unrequited love and the dogged determination to improve his romantic circumstances. Valcour’s first aria, “Depuis longtemps mon coeur soupire” (For a long time my heart has sighed), is aching with a touch of the frantic. Bologne had a keen ear for instrumental coloration; there is especially lovely writing for the reeds in this aria.
The audience is introduced to Léontine through the fiery ariette “Son amour, sa constance extrême” (His love, his extreme constancy). She sings this to Valcour, whining about how she is showered with gifts and letters from someone she doesn’t care about. Soprano Nicole Cabell’s clear and powerful voice helps to give agency to the character of Léontine, whose only real function in the libretto is to be loved by Valcour. It’s a musically challenging role demanding a wide range that often stays in the upper register, but Cabell seems to handle it with ease.
Bass-baritone David Govertsen sings the role of Ophémon, Valcour’s pal and confidant who is always at the edge of losing patience with his friend’s bumbling parries and thrusts at love. Govertsen has the big, supple voice needed for a comic bass role. The Act 1 duet between Ophémon and Valcour points out the only general performance issue on this recording — unfortunately a consistent one: slightly out-of-sync playing in the strings, which becomes especially problematic in this duet, causing rhythmic confusion great enough to obscure the downbeat a few times.
The opera’s other two main characters, Jeannette (soprano Erica Schuller) and Colin (tenor Michael St. Peter), are another, younger couple, who exist in the story for two reasons: first, to show that love can, in fact, work out, and second, to have their wedding at a time in the plot that allows for Léontine and Valcour to finally be alone together and realize that they’re in love with each other.
There’s also an excellent musical justification for this additional twosome. Their presence gives Bologne a chance to create a wonderful quintet for the five singing parts at the end of Act 1. Bologne is often referred to as the Black Mozart, and this ensemble writing shows that he had a true claim to comparison with the great Amadeus. It also reminds us what a tragedy it is that all but one of his six operas are lost.
Léontine has her own co-conspirator, a speaking-only part covered by Nathalie Colas, who is a soprano in the Haymarket chorus. In fact, the preponderance of spoken dialogue led to the unusual but logical decision to release this opera on three discs (for the price of two, the Cedille website is quick to point out). Discs 1 and 2 contain the full opera with dialogue. Nearly half of the opera’s length is taken up with speaking, not unusual for opéra comique of the period but rough if you just want to enjoy Bologne’s exceptional music. So, that’s what you get on Disc 3: the whole opera without any dialogue.
This recording of L’Amant anonyme was a result of the live production by the Chicago-based Haymarket, which specializes in producing little-known Baroque operas. If anyone should uncover another of Bologne’s theatrical works in the future, I hope that Haymarket is first in line to take a crack at it.