You have to hand it to Opera Lafayette. At a time when opera companies across the country are seeking innovations and little-known works, it has continued to mine a vein that has given a tremendous payoff. Having started as a specialist in opera of the French baroque period, it has expanded its mandate to encompass works of the 18th and even 19th centuries that were once popular and have since been forgotten, but that have a natural appeal to most curious opera-goers — and are also fun.
Such was André Grétry’s “L’Épreuve Villageoise” (The Village Trial), which concluded the company’s 20th-anniversary season with two performances in the Terrace Theater at the Kennedy Center on Saturday afternoon and evening. Premiered in 1784, then rewritten and relaunched later the same year, it was frequently performed for almost a century.
Now it’s not, and one wouldn’t necessarily want it to be: It’s a slender piece built along familiar operatic lines (A village girl wants to test her overly attentive lover, so she makes him jealous by pretending she is planning to marry someone else. “L’Elisir d’Amore,” anybody?). But it has some delightful music, and in the hands of a small company with expertise in this particular area, it was well cast and charmingly produced, and it made for a fine evening’s entertainment.
Opéra comique involves a lot of talking, and Opera Lafayette is increasingly casting native French speakers, such as the charming Sophie Junker, who played Denise on Saturday night, or the baritone Thomas Dolié, who made an authoritative sound as the effete aristocrat M. de la France, her would-be suitor.
It also involves, in this case, a lot of singing. Grétry was generous with his duets and ensembles, and there’s quite a lot of rich music within this cream puff of a work. The soprano lead was the only part that was double-cast. All the other singers had already given a matinee performance earlier in the day, as well as singing the piece Wednesday at what has become the company’s second home in New York. Some of the voices were a little tired; even Dolié briefly lost color, and the tenor Francisco Fernández-Rueda, as the endearing lover André, was definitely glad when this day was over. But they still sounded as if they were having fun — as did Talise Trevigne, who represented luxury casting in what is more or less the character part of Madame Hubert, Denise’s mother.
Nick Olcott, who directed Opera Lafayette’s “Cosi fan tutte” double bill last season, moved the action to New Orleans, where this opera was quite popular in its day. But he did it so unobtrusively that I forgot that’s what was happening until quite late in the proceedings, when I realized that the chorus’s zany costumes and dancing antics (choreographed and energetically led by Aaron R. White) were early Mardi Gras manifestations. It didn’t really matter. “L’Épreuve Villageoise” lives squarely in opera land; it’s just the kind of innovation that mainstream opera audiences can get behind.
More power to Opera Lafayette and its founder and conductor, Ryan Brown, who sensitively led the orchestra, for managing to bring a personal and somewhat eclectic dream to a wider audience.