Music review: Opera Lafayette's 'Le Magnifique'

By Joe Banno
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 6, 2011; 5:40 PM

Conductor Ryan Brown and his fine early-music ensemble, Opera Lafayette, have made it their mission to explore seldom-trod byways of 18th-century opera. The performance they gave at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Saturday of "Le Magnifique," a 1773 work by French composer Andre-Ernest-Modeste Gretry, was billed as a "modern world premiere," and (as with many of the company's recent performances of freshly unearthed repertoire) it's scheduled to be recorded by Naxos for future CD issue.

"Le Magnifique" has one of those plots - involving pirate abductions, wily servants, cardboard villains and exasperatingly drawn-out flirtations - that cause fits of eye-rolling in modern audiences, but its score is notably attractive. Written at a time when busily contrapuntal late-baroque composition was giving way to the pared-down elegance of the emergent Classical style, Gretry's opera-comique occupies an intriguing middle ground.

In the tangy and beautifully turned performance that Brown drew from his 30-piece period-instrument orchestra, the composer's colorful score evoked a cross between Handel's pastoral operas and the comedies Mozart wrote during his teen years.

The fine cast featured Elizabeth Calleo's pert and pure-voiced soprano, Marguerite Krull's elegantly phrased lyric mezzo, three appealing tenors - Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, displaying a handsomely rich and Latinate sound, and Jeffrey Thompson and Karim Sulayman, both doing vivid comic work with their voices - as well as a pair of stylish and warm-voiced baritones, Douglas Williams and Randall Scarlata. Scarlata also spoke the spare, engaging narration that Nick Olcott wrote to replace the work's original spoken dialogue, and director Catherine Turocy contributed sensibly direct semi-staging to keep the story clear.

Banno is a freelance writer.

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