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Opera Lafayette uncovers Monsigny work once sung by Marie-Antoinette

The early music scene in our region -- the early music scene, period -- is particularly fortunate to have Opera Lafayette as a major player.

The D.C-based company has been reviving neglected repertoire since 1995, and doing so with remarkable style. Several Naxos recordings document the quality.

The latest discovery, in a production presented at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater Saturday night and heading next to New York on the way to Versailles, is Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny's "Le Roi at le fermier."

This 1762 opera enjoyed considerable popularity back in the day, so much so that it was performed in 1780 in the Theatre de la Reine, starring no less than Marie-Antoinette. That alone gives "Le Roi at le fermier" ("The King and the Farmer") abundant curiosity value.

When Opera Lafayette performs the piece at Versailles, it will be with restored sets from 1780, which, somehow survived all these years in storage. The performances, Feb. 4 and 5, will be in the recently renovated Opera Royal at the storied palace.

"Le Roi et le fermier" abounds in felicitous melodies that settle easily into the ear, and they are enhanced by remarkably colorful orchestration.

The libretto by Michel-Jean Sedaine spins a simple tale set in Sherwood Forest involving a farmer named Richard and his concern for his beloved Jenny (the role Marie-Antoinette sang). That concern stems from the fact that Lurewel, a courtier of the King of England, has dastardly designs on Jenny.

The king, lost during a hunting expedition, ends up in Richard's humble abode, where he learns how decent and wise commoners can be, and how bad Lurewel is for his image. All ends sweetly.

It may be hard to, um, wrap one’s head around the notion that Marie-Antoinette would want to perform in an opera that depicts how benevolent a monarch could behave toward the little people of his kingdom -- a message that doesn't seem to have stuck with the Queen of France, or her hubby, who witnessed her performance.

But it is easy to ...

imagine how charmed Marie-Antoinette would be by Monsigny's music.

The score includes, most notably, a storm scene that inspires vivid writing; on its own terms, it can hold its own against the stormy passages Rossini, Weber and Verdi would compose years later.

Opera Lafayette assembled a lively cast for this semi-staged production.

William Sharp, as Richard, was up to his usual standard, delivering a musically astute performance, filled with subtle, communicative inflections.

Although Dominique Labelle, as Jenny, sounded a little stiff at the start, the tone and the phrasing warmed up quickly.

As the King, Thomas Michael Allen produced a light, sometimes tentative sound, but did expressive work along the way. Jeffrey Thompson, as Lurewel, got a good meal from chewing the minimal scenery (by Bill Harkins). The foppish characterization is a very tired device, but Thomspon carried it off with a fresh zing, and his baritone rang out in sturdy, vivid fashion.

A good deal of characterful singing also came from Delores Ziegler as Richard's Mother. She made the most of a little aria sung while serving the King a meal that, from the droll sound of the accompanying woodwinds, must have had a distinctly avian flavor. Yulia Van Doren (Betsy), Thomas Dolie (Rustaut), David Newman (Charlot) and Tony Boute (Courtesan) rounded things out vibrantly.

The orchestra of period instruments sounded limber and polished. Company founder/artistic director Ryan Brown conducted with obvious affection, keen interest in subtleties of the scoring, and an effective pulse that kept things flowing nicely.

The production, directed by Didier Rousselet, took a curious approach. Rousselet and another excellent actor, Monica Neagoy, handled most of the spoken dialogue, while the singers mimed the action.

It didn't entirely persuade theatrically, but the duo could hardly have been more engaging. Even the way they entered the opera proved memorable -- seen only from the shoulders up, as if two sculpted busts on pedestals, gradually and amusingly coming to life.


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