Conceived and mounted in the heat of the French Revolution, “Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal” by Pierre Gaveaux, to a libretto by Jean-Nicholas Bouilly, was heard Sunday at Lisner Auditorium on the 219th anniversary of its Paris premiere. Opera Lafayette’s smart, efficient production brought the brief opéra comique fully to life with vivid playing and singing.
The story of a political prisoner rescued by an intensely loyal wife struck deep nerves at the time, and the libretto was taken up soon thereafter by two different Italian composers, and then sent to a German fellow named Beethoven. His setting, “Fidelio,” placed the story in the permanent iconography of Western culture, which preserves “Léonore” but makes comparisons impossible to avoid.
The setting is remarkably similar, with the exact same characters and plot, a prisoner’s chorus, the jailer’s lighthearted pean to gold (wealth), a long dungeon monologue to open Act II, and the dramatic trumpet-call announcing that help is arriving. But only with the most tendentious imagination could one find musical links between Gaveaux and Beethoven. The closer stylistic juxtaposition would be to Mozart, but Gaveaux is an epigone with little of the Viennese master’s effervescence. The most dramatic moments occur in dialogue rather than during the music, which leaves the listener at an emotional distance; and after a gloomy prelude, Florestan’s monologue (the nadir of the story) is a lilting, 6/8 cavatina. Still, take away comparisons and the music was charming, made more so by the fine performances.
Conductor Ryan Brown assembled a strong, consistent cast, anchored by Kimy McLaren in the title role. Her supple soprano projected with more ease than her colleagues’ voices, though none were inferior. Alexandre Sylvestre in the smallest role (Don Fernand) left me wanting much more, and Pascale Beaudin (Marceline), Tomislav Lavoie (Roc), Keven Geddes (Jacquino), and Dominique Côté (Pizare) all sported clean, healthy voices.
Jean-Michel Richer (Florestan) lacked heft for me — dramatically and vocally — but that was perhaps more of a casting than a performing matter. The orchestra was very good as well; the musicians are specialists in early-music performance, and though the string players used vibrato arbitrarily and inconsistently, the wind players coped expertly with their often-balky period instruments, producing delightful sonorities.
The set — a Noguchi-inspired, adjustable abstract frame serving as both a wall and backdrop — by Laurence Mongeau was spare but vaguely evocative. By contrast, the lighting design by Julie Basse was almost startling, sometimes a dramatic character itself. Oriol Tomas’s staging was conventional but effective: The duet where Léonore and Marceline get handsy with one another (to the former’s great discomfiture) was comedic without being silly, while the dungeon sequences in Act II were brought off with stark efficiency. Cultural events such as this (paired with the Washington Concert Opera’s upcoming performance of Beethoven’s first version of “Fidelio”) are a rarity anywhere and a gift to the D.C. region. Far more seats should have been filled.