Opera Lafayette is an American-born ensemble that aims to “rediscover masterpieces” and specializes in French repertoire. Its founder, conductor, and Artistic Director, Ryan Brown, rediscovered a musical gem with Le Roi et le fermier, an 18th Century opera-comique that features song, dialogue, and some wisdom about the human condition.
With a libretto by Michel-Jean Sedaine, Le Roi et le fermier recounts an evening in the life of a farmer, played by baritone William Sharp, who is in charge of the king’s royal forest. The story spans an action-packed, dark and stormy night, filled with lost and retrieved love, disguised identities, and warm hospitality. If you didn’t read a synopsis (there is a detailed synopsis on the Opera Lafayette website) it may have been difficult to follow at times, but the performers’ charisma and enthusiasm and period orchestra’s excellent playing keeps the narrative going.
Baritone William Sharp has a strong and expressive voice, and his counterpart, soprano Dominique Labelle, has a lovely and clear voice with some nice roundness. Labelle played the farmer’s fiancé Jenny, whom the audience discovers was kidnapped by the evil and greasy Lurewel, sung and acted wonderfully by Jeffrey Thompson. Soprano Yulia Van Doren is Jenny’s future younger sister-in-law, and her voice has a beautiful quality. She clearly has a lot of fun with the performance, and the audience responded very positively to her portrayal of the silly young girl. The king (Thomas Michael Allen) was a hit with the audience, as well.
The company is set to perform the piece this year in the royal theatre of Versailles with the original set used by Marie Antoinette’s performance of the opera from 1780. Naturally, they couldn’t ship the priceless sets to the States, so they compromised for their American tour of the performance with the bare minimum – just a tree stump for the first two acts, and a table with a few chairs for the last act. What made it work, however, was the crafty lighting design by Colin K. Bills, lovely costume coordination and make-up by Cecile Heatley and Monica Neagoy, respectively, and the “translators” who commented on the scenes. Director Didier Rousselet and Assistant Director Neagoy, both native French-speakers, play the actor-translators, who were inspired by an exhibition of sculptures by Pajou. The actors have gold-painted faces and assist their fellow performers by setting up the scenes and providing the dialogue. They received a lot of laughs from the audience and help to clarify the action.
Le Roi et le fermier, making its 21st Century world premiere, is a good introduction to 18th-century opera-comique. Composer Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny’s melodious tunes and effort to have harmony between the music and libretto do not go unnoticed, especially during the storm scene, and the singers do a fabulous job.
Running Time: 1hr 45 minutes, including a 15 minute intermission
Opera Lafayette played and closed at The Kennedy Center on January 21, 2012 at 7:30 PM.