The French Revolution changed many things beyond political systems, from a short-lived reorganization of the calendar to the invention of the metric system. The Paris Opera, that most royal of institutions, somehow continued to mount productions throughout the turbulence. Opera Lafayette, the D.C.-based period-instrument ensemble focused on 18th-century French opera, closed out its season by presenting three long excerpts from French operas of the Revolutionary period, heard on Friday evening at Lisner Auditorium.
Victoria Johnson, in her book about the Opera during the revolution, quotes a company log from the year 1789. It records the violent death of finance minister Joseph Foullon de Doué on July 22, whose “head was cut off and body paraded and dragged through the streets.” On July 23 the opera was closed, but on July 24 there was a performance of “Alceste.” The show must go on.
The premiere of Antonio Sacchini’s “Oedipe à Colone” was in 1786, just before the violence erupted. Soprano Nathalie Paulin reprised her interpretation of Antigone from Opera Lafayette’s complete performance of this work in 2005. Her voice, heard in all three operas on this program, has blossomed, retaining its beautiful qualities and gaining in power, a sense of authority coupled with a magnetic stage presence. Baritone Javier Arrey incarnated the rage of Oedipus with smooth force, albeit with a tendency to rush the beat.
Jean-Paul-Égide Martini’s “Sapho,” premiered in 1794, was the centerpiece, a fascinating take on the life of the ancient Greek poet written just after the Reign of Terror. Soprano Sophie Junker made a charming Cléis, her clement tone providing a waifish foil to Paulin’s strident Sapho. Tenor Antonio Figueroa brought a light-filled, moving sound to Paulin’s two love interests, particularly effective as the wicked Jason in Cherubini’s “Médée,” premiered in 1797, during the Directory.
Conductor Ryan Brown’s orchestra had its ups and downs, the former including subtle contributions from four horn players and the latter some shortcomings in the oboes. The set-less staging directed by Miřenka Čechová did nothing to prevent the large space from swallowing up the sound of the singers. Čechová accomplished a sense of the drama with little more than the black-clad chorus and a bunch of suitcases, but the lighting by Martin Špetlík was oppressive in “Médée,” with its red glare and swung flashlights proving too painful for my eyes.
Correction: A previous version of this review’s photo caption misidentified tenor Antonio Figueroa as baritone Javier Arrey. The caption has been corrected.