Baroque opera. Love it love it love it, but why does my butt go numb from sitting through it? Oh that’s right, it can be as long as Rheingold.
Thus my posterior shrinks when I read that a French Baroque opera will begin at 7:30 in the evening. The early start usually means that the producers are trying to get the audience out before 11pm. I gamely buy my ticket anyway, happy to sink into lush sonorities, liltingly uneven lines, and deeply felt, if one-dimensional emotions.
But I then I walked into Opera Lafayette. Happily devoted to the wealth of French repertoire that largely goes unperformed, the company was presenting the US premiere of Le Magnifique by André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry (1741-1813), a smash hit from the Paris opera-comique (the Winter Garden Theater of its day). If there’s any genre that’s been neglected in the historical music movement, it’s early classical. It’s a tall order to attract crowds to it. If Mozart is great, why listen to his contemporaries, who are merely very good?
Opera Lafayette showed us exactly why. It’s a delight! Sure, there isn’t a tune you will easily walk out humming, but piece after piece conveys compelling emotion, communicates a character, and is just a delight to listen to. Something like the Parisian love child of Mozart and Handel, the work relies heavily on solo arias of various forms, unlike Handel’s common use of the da capo aria. In the mix are several ensemble scenes that Mozart would have found charming, as they manage to convey the variety of feelings of everyone on stage in a layered musical gesture.
By and large the work was successful, the at times tedious repetition of the text – I missed Donna Elvira! – improved by the dramatic flair of the cast.
Director Catherine Turocy, a dancer herself, seemed to choose a modern take on the use of Baroque gesture to illustrate character. Many historic productions rely heavily on the gorgeous art of Baroque gesture, a code that communicates wordlessly with the audience by using the actor’s body from head to toe. Look out, that one raising his left hand must be evil! The limp hands on that one must mean she’s in despair. Symmetry in gesture and body posture was to be avoided.
It’s marvelous to watch, but a bit affected. Better was how this cast pulled it off, with each character inhabiting a clear way of moving that told us who they were. Dirty old man: slither. His buffo servant: frenzy. Le Magnifique himself: grand. To me it was a successful way of making the Baroque aesthetic modern.
Perhaps the performance was so satisfying because it clearly was based on commedia dell’arte characters. The everyman, the ingenue, the wise old man, etc. It’s entertaining to see how many modern adaptations of these ancient archetypes there are. We come back to them like children playing with dolls, leaving with the satisfaction that we’ll see them again soon.