Music: Opera Lafayette's 'Sancho Panca' reviewed by Anne Midgette

something to sing about: Karim Sulayman and Elizabeth Calleo rehearse Philidor's opéra comique.
something to sing about: Karim Sulayman and Elizabeth Calleo rehearse Philidor's opéra comique. (Louis Forget)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Everyone should know his place. It's a sentiment that has anchored European society for the last millennium or so -- farmers belong on their farms, nobles in their castles -- and it's the motto of "Sancho Pança," an opera from 1762 by François-André Danican Philidor that had what was alleged to be its modern American premiere at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater on Monday night.

The premiere came courtesy of Opera Lafayette, whose 15th-anniversary season -- which concluded with this performance -- underlined its own unique place in Washington's, or even America's, cultural life. Having staked out its claim to the territory of baroque opera, tilling soil in some cases left fallow for centuries (when was the last time you heard an opera by Philidor?), the company has produced a string of recordings, made regular visits to New York and, this year, sold out the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with Gluck's "Armide."

The company's challenge here was to establish the proper place of "Sancho Pança," a light musical comedy (technically, an opéra-comique) about an episode in Cervantes's "Don Quixote" when the protagonist's beloved sidekick is set up, as a prank, as the governor of a fictive island. Opera Lafayette's solution was to make the work's history a part of the show, a play-within-a-play, featuring the same singer-actors who performed the "Sancho" premiere. Though a bit hokey in places, it was actually not a bad way to help bring a 300-year-old comedy into some kind of relation to the 21st-century audience, which was perfectly willing to guffaw away at the singers' antics.

"Sancho Pança" is a simple but adroit piece of work, with strong ensembles interspersed with set solo arias, and pat verse songs juxtaposed with rambling humorous monologues. Ryan Brown, the company's founder and guiding light, prevailed from the pit in the persona of Philidor himelf, better remembered today as a chess master (the Philidor Defense is still a familiar opening); Brown assumed the character with the help of an 18th-century ponytail and a chessboard balanced on the lip of the orchestra pit.

You don't need magisterial singing to bring across this kind of light comedy, which is good, because many of the voices on stage were still works in progress. They had plenty to offer, though. Darren Perry, with a pleasant baritone still in search of support for his top notes, sang Sancho as a solid, respectable peasant whose common sense trumps his dreams of glory, and who leads the final song about knowing his own place. Elizabeth Calleo, whose top notes worked much better than her lower ones, was his shrewish, frying-pan-wielding wife, Thérèse. Karim Sulayman brought the slightly strained white sound of a high tenor to the ardent young male lead; and Meghan McCall (like Perry, an alum of the company's Young Artists Program) brought a honeylike soprano to her several roles, all coquettish and falling under the general heading of "love interest."

Presiding over the putative rehearsal was "Sancho Pança's" librettist, M. Poinsinet, played by the actor John Lescault with a foray into Rex Harrison-style sung speech at the end. Far from feeling rehearsal-like, though, the performance was staged, with gorgeous costumes, by Catherine Turocy, an expert in this epoch of performance who has become effectively a part of the troupe. Like the costumes, the evening as a whole was a sparkle of shining surfaces.

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