Focusing on the seldom-trod byways of 18th-century French opera, conductor Ryan Brown’s company Opera Lafayette has achieved a popularity uncommon for such a niche ensemble, on local stages and with an ongoing series of recordings for the Naxos label. And this year they’re receiving the rare honor of performing Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny’s forgotten 1762 work, “Le Roi et le Fermier” (“The King and the Farmer”), at the Opera Royal in Versailles on Feb. 5 and 6.
They performed the opera at the Terrace Theater on Saturday (with another performance scheduled for Thursday at Lincoln Center). Written in a style that straddles the waning late-Baroque and the then-nascent Classical period, the graceful and melodically generous score of “Le Roi” often resembles an improbable mix of Rameau and Mozart (with a wonderfully inventive storm scene to close Act One). Michel-Jean Sedaine’s libretto might be thought of as an 18th-century version of the current reality show “Undercover Boss,” with the kingdom’s ruler moving in disguise among his subjects and getting an earful about monarchs trusting shady advisors over the voice of the people.
In Versailles, Opera Lafayette will be using recently discovered, original backdrops from a 1780 production of “Le Roi” at the Theatre de la Reine, in which Marie Antoinette played the shepherdess, Jenny. At the Terrace, we had to make do with bargain-basement canvas drops and the odd table or tree stump. What perked up the production was a staging concept by director Didier Rousselet and associate director Monica Neagoy — co-artistic directors of Northern Virginia’s Francophone theatre ensemble, Le Neon — both of whom acted in the production.
Starting the show as sculptural busts in a modern museum, they sprang to life and conjured the other cast members to enact the story. To deal with the considerable amount of French dialogue in the piece, Rousselet and Neagoy recited much of the spoken text while the singers enacted a broadly gestural dumb show, only tossing in the occasional spoken phrase.
What might have been too precious in other hands emerged as an engaging stylization, thanks to tongues held firmly in cheeks, and costumes, borrowed from Washington National Opera, that gave a neatly tailored, period look to the proceedings. The singers were game for all the ventriloquism with their dialogue, and delivered the musical side of the piece with fine voices and keen attention to period style. Baritone William Sharp and soprano Dominique Labelle may have looked a little long in the tooth as the rustic lovers Richard and Jenny. But Sharp sang with the clear, handsome timbre he has possessed over a long career, and Labelle’s mix of vibrancy and creamy tone gave welcome weight to her character’s lovely arias. Tenor Thomas Michael Allen, though almost entirely lacking a lower register, made a mellifluous sound as the King, and sweet-toned lyric-soprano Yulia Van Doren was a charmer as Richard’s high-strung sister, Betsy. The supporting cast was strong, offering some amusingly over-the-top comic business — and it was gratifying to hear veteran Dolores Ziegler still in effective vocal form. Brown drew crisp, spirited playing from his period-instrument orchestra, and — despite the dry, recessed acoustic of the Terrace’s pit — allowed Monsigny’s piquant orchestration to register splendidly.
Banno is a freelance writer.