Opera Lafayette, the Washington, DC-based ensemble specializing in French 18th-century opera, will make history on January 26th when it presents the modern day world premiere of Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny's Le Roi et le fermier (The King and the Farmer) at the Rose Theater in New York City. The cast of singers includes Thomas Michael Allen (Le Roi), William Sharp (Le Fermier), Dominique Labelle (Jenny) and Jeffrey Thompson (Lurewel). The period instrument Opera Lafayette Orchestra will be conducted by the company's artistic director Ryan Brown.
Brown spoke with Ariama editor Craig Zeichner about Monsigny and the French opéra comique.
Craig Zeichner: Please tell me about Le Roi et le fermier.
Ryan Brown: I think it's one of those example of a composer and librettist really at one in creating a piece that totally integrates story and music. That's the great relationship between Michel-Jean Sedaine (1719-1797) and Monsigny (1729-1817) who collaborated on a number of works together. Le Roi et le fermier's significance in the maturation of the opéra comique genre is huge.
It’s an interesting piece because it’s taking on the issue of class conflict which for the year 1762 is a big deal. Putting the King and a commoner together on the same stage and having them have a frank conversation was daring. Sedaine actually wrote in the preface to the work that some people found it offensive and that he had to change the scene a bit – an indication that it was first censored – but Le Roi became very popular and in tune with its time.
It’s ironic that this piece which was popular with the middle class became popular with the royalty and was eventually done by Marie Antoinette some 18 years after its premiere. As a matter of fact, they actually still have the sets that were used in Versailles. Marie might have known Le Roi from productions in Vienna where it was very popular during the 1760s.
CZ: Besides the class issue, there are other interesting elements.
RB: It's kind of a proto-Romantic piece. There's a sentimental streak in it, but it doesn't get melodramatic. Nature takes on a role in the plot too. There's a storm where the King gets lost at the end of the first act and then he is alone and fearful in the dark at night in the second act. He's then reduced to being alone and feel what it's like to not be a King.
CZ: The King lost and wandering in the dark reminds me, in some ways, of the Count in the last act of Nozze.
RB: Of course. This, like Nozze, is also a place where things get democratized. Tricks are played on the Count in Nozze, but here the King is respected and it's the aristocrats around him who get spoofed. Vienna had a strong opéra comique theater and I think Mozart would have been absolutely aware of this stuff.
CZ: What are some of the characteristics of opéra comique?
RB: It’s a simple musical style. It’s nothing like opera seria, nothing like Baroque opera. It’s both simple and subtly sophisticated. Before it matured into the genre mastered by François-André Philidor, Monsigny and André-Modeste Grétry it was made up of bits of popular songs that people knew with new words added to them. That simple style continues with the Monsigny and later Grétry, both writing very accessible melodies. You know Monsigny was a melodic genius, not as well trained as Philidor, but his melodies are unforgettable. He had an infallible sense of what kind of melody should be associated with what was in the libretto.
It also has popular touches. Often some complicated ensembles would devolve at their end into vaudeville-like finales where every character has their say. You can almost imagine them unfurling banners with the words on them from the stage so the audience can sing along, that’s how they did it at the time. It’s kind of a democratic moment when the audience and singers can join.
CZ: What are some of the challenges with this work?
RB: The spoken dialogue presents challenges. There is no accompanied recitative, so it was a big challenge to see what would work both here and in France. We are working with a director who is French but has worked in America. He struck an interesting balance between the naturalistic style of the period and a kind of self-consciously theatrical style that we need to apply looking back on a piece through 21st century eyes. Trying to find that balance has been one of the fun challenges in preparing the piece.
The opéra comique of the second half of the 18th century is a real dynamic and influential form and it’s very exciting for me to discover these works for the first time.
Opera Lafayette has built an interesting discography of this music on the Naxos label.
Christoph Willibald Gluck: Orphée et Euridice (1774 Paris Version)
François Rebel and François Francoeur: Zélindor, roi des Sylphes
François-André Philidor: Sancho Pança
Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny: Le Déserteur
Opera Lafayette will be performing Le Roi et le fermier on January 26, 2012, 7:30PM at the Rose Theater, Frederick P. Rose Hall at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
The company then takes the production on the road for February 4th and 5th performances at the Chateau de Versailles.