Western music is littered with small pieces written for incidental purposes or one-off performances that have been forgotten largely because there is no obvious way to perform them again. See Rossini’s “Viaggio a Reims,” written for the celebrations of the coronation of Charles X, and not exhumed until the 1970s. And see Emmanuel Chabrier’s “Une éducation manquée (An Incomplete Education),” a half-hour work for piano and three singers, written in 1879 for a single performance in a club. Opera Lafayette brought this piece, as light and fleeting and swirling with color as a soap bubble, to the Terrace Theater on Tuesday and Wednesday night.
Opera Lafayette specializes in forgotten works of the French baroque, but it has expanded its compass to include forgotten works of the late 19th century. Chabrier was a sophisticated composer who wrote this piece on a kind of lark, although on commission, after the relative failure of his dense “L’Étoile.” Although the libretto was in part satirizing current French educational reforms, it could have been written a century earlier: It involves a young man and woman on their wedding night, not sure how to proceed, and the young man’s tutor, who has taught him everything except what to do in this situation. What takes it into the 19th century is Chabrier’s disproportionately rich and adroit music, culminating in a love duet (they do figure it out, finally) that sounds as if it should adorn something more along the lines of “La Bohème” than an innocent little story about unusually obtuse teenagers. (Indeed, Chabrier’s characters here may be unique in the operatic repertory in requiring instruction about the basic mechanics of love, especially with so much pungent music swirling around them.)
It was lovely to get a chance to hear this piece, but ideally it might be fleshed out with one or two other short operas rather than the Chabrier songs with which Opera Lafayette framed it. The impulse was understandable; the animal songs they offered are also far too little-known, and well worth hearing, though the titles — “La villanelle des petits canards,” “La pastorale des cochons roses,” and “Les Cigalles” (about little ducks, pink piglets and cicadas) to texts by Rosemonde Gerard — don’t necessarily indicate the nuances of the music.
The conceit of the production’s director, Bernard Deletre, was that these songs were vignettes of how the two young protagonists grew up, side by side, featuring cameos by a quartet of charmingly stage-worthy children (Bella Deocares Brandenburg and Sami Sidi-Boumedine playing the protagonists at about age 5, and Sofia Brunetti and Franco Cabanas at about 12), and culminating in a beguiling duet for two chickens, “Cocodette et Cocorico” before the start of the opera proper.
All of this music was far more compelling than the nursery-rhyme subject matter would indicate. Still, we were left with an evening only an hour long; in this case, more might have been more.
What remained was a charming and economical evening with three singers among whom Sophie Junker, singing the role of the young bride Hélenè, stood out with a full, firm soprano voice. Amel Brahim-Djelloul, another soprano, took the pants role of Gontran, singing brightly and sometimes shrilly but not fully balancing her partner, and Dominique Côté sang the essentially buffo role of the tutor, M. Pausenias. Jeffery Watson took on the piano part, which sounded difficult but was generally beguiling, and Ryan Brown, the company’s founder and artistic director, conducted — even the solo piano overture, which patently didn’t need it.
The opera will travel to New York for two additional performances this weekend.