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Opera Lafayette takes comic turn with 1762 work about Sancho Panza

Opera Lafayette, the remarkable DC-based company that focuses on 17th and 18th century repertoire, has steadily built an impressive name for itself.

Several recordings on the Naxos label attest to the artistic quality. Earlier this season, a very successful presentation of Gluck's "Armide" at the Kennedy Center and New York's Rose Theater won raves -- and lots of admiration for how the company sold out  both places through old-fashioned, hand-to-hand, word-of-mouth, budget-less marketing.

Monday night in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, Opera Lafayette closed its 15th season with an obscure item from 1762: "Sancho Pança," by François-André Danican Philidor. It's not likely that too many more opportunities to hear this comic piece will come along anytime soon.  (This was billed as the work's modern American premiere.)

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Antoine Alexandre Henri Poinsinet's libretto,  based on an episode in "Don Quixote," is not exactly full of intricate plot lines, but has some cute bits involving Sancho Panza on the Isle of Barataria. The score reflects the composer's gift for charming melodic lines and colorful orchestration, not to mention occasionally vivid harmonic turns. Every now and then, the quality of the music really was striking, even -- dare I say? -- almost evocative of Mozart.

I know conventional wisdom has it that

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neglected composers deserve neglect, forgotten operas deserve to rot on the shelf. By a neat coincidence, while "Sancho Pança" was unfolding in the Terrace Theater Monday night, a performance of another rarity from the French repertoire, Ambroise Thomas' "Hamlet," was going on in the Opera House below. I've noticed some folks complaining that Washington National Opera bothered to revive that third-rate muck, but I'm grateful for the opportunity to experience "Hamlet" again. And I still say that it's a lot better than its reputation, and that

. Likewise, I think Opera Lafayette provided a valuable service restoring to life, however briefly, a piece that has genuine charms. It made me want to hear more by Philidor.

Opera Lafayette's semi-staging concept, directed by Catherine Turocy, got a little cutesy, perhaps, but the idea was sound -- a take-off on how the actors and singers of the Comedie Italienne in Paris used to govern the place and audition new works, including Philidor's. This provided the workable framework to fill in plot details. The cast jumped in with theatrical flair. Vocally, things were a bit uneven. Darren Perry, as Sancho, needed a more secure top register to go with the rest of his vibrant effort. I wouldn't have minded greater tonal color from sopranos Meghan McCall and Elizabeth Calleo, but their dynamic delivery paid off. Karim Sulayman was particularly impressive, puting a lot of character into his singing. John Lescault, in the speaking role of librettist Poinsinet, served as an amiable host for this fast-paced dip into opera history. The rest of the cast provided able support.

Artistic director and conductor Ryan Brown presided over a fleet performance that found the company's period instrument orchestra bubbling along nicely.

Next season, Opera Lafayette has scheduled Handel's "Acis and Galatea," Grétry's "Le Magnifique," and more.

OPERA LAFAYETTE PHOTO OF RYAN BROWN

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