'Le Déserteur': It's Seldom Done For Good Reason

By Charles Downey
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, January 31, 2009

Opera Lafayette revived another forgotten 18th-century work Thursday at the Kennedy Center, a detour into the uncharted territory of opera comique with Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny's "Le Déserteur." The newly formed Théâtre-Italien in Paris premiered the work in 1769, and it was adapted in English for several performances in the early years of the United States, then vanished from sight. This performance revealed that the piece has some pleasing music but did not offer a compelling reason for its rehabilitation.

Librettist Michel-Jean Sedaine, in one of several collaborations with Monsigny, created a far-fetched story about a soldier, Alexis, tricked into believing that his beloved Louise has married another man. As a result Alexis lands in prison for deserting the army, and Louise saves him from execution at the last possible moment, the formula followed in Beethoven's "Fidelio" and many other "rescue operas." Nick Olcott and conductor Ryan Brown replaced the spoken dialogue with an English narration of the action, performed charmingly by actor John Lescault and assisted, perhaps superfluously, by dancer Caroline Copeland.

As Alexis, baritone William Sharp was vocally pale and underpowered in the first half, apparently challenged by the role's low and especially high extremes, but his performance of "Il m'eût été si doux de t'embrasser" was affecting. Darren Perry, a graduate student of François Loup's, sang with a smooth, rounded tone as the messenger Courchemin. As Louise, soprano Dominique Labelle stood out as a voice able to fill the Terrace Theater with sound, a viscous, reedy tone that was poignant and dark on low notes but drooped flat at the ends of phrases.

Hector Berlioz and Heinrich Heine admired "Le Déserteur" for its melodic freshness and dramatic ingenuity, especially in the close juxtaposition of comic and tragic. Even in this work, which many credit with beginning the transformation of opera comique into a more serious genre, Monsigny's lack of formal musical education, criticized by the Baron von Grimm and later scholars, made the score rough and unpolished. Perhaps recognizing his own shortcomings, Monsigny retired from composition long before the end of his life, leaving the field of the opera comique to André-Modeste Grétry and others.

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