Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The second gift from Minnesota Opera is an introduction to the opera's composer, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Bologne was born in 1745 in what was then the French Caribbean colony of Guadeloupe, the child of a French plantation owner and his wife's sixteen-year-old Black house slave. At the age of seven, Bologne was brought to Paris by his father, where he received a gentleman's education. He overcame the dual societal obstacles of being an illegitimate child and a person of color to become a renowned swordsman, a famed violin prodigy, an acclaimed composer, the conductor of a major orchestra, and an officer in the French Revolution, on the side of the republic. For several months he and Mozart shared lodging, his orchestra sent commissions to Hayden, and among his patrons–before the revolution–was Marie Antoinette. He also spent eighteen months in prison on charges of corruption based on his "privileged" upbringing. Bologne's life itself could be the basis of an epic opera.
But back to the Ordway stage, where The Anonymous Lover is giddily enabling audiences to make the acquaintance of this astonishing man. It is the lone survivor of the six operas Bologne wrote, along with a raft of concerti, symphonies, string quartets, and more. The libretto is by Stéphanie Félicité de Genlis, Madame de Genlis, based on the play L'Amant Anonyme by Stéphanie Félicité de Genlis. Set at an elegant seaside villa, it tells the story of Valcour, a virtuous young man who has long suffered silently over his love for Léontine, now four years a widow. Valcour is certain that even if she were to love again, he would be unworthy of her. Unable to speak, he instead sends her numerous romantic gifts–anonymously–as a way to release his pent-up ardor.
Léontine overhears Valcour's friend Ophémon urging him to reveal himself, yet modesty forbids her from acting on what she has learned. The opera's two acts (running ninety minutes, no intermission) unspool the interplay between Valcour, Léontine, Ophémon, and Léontine's friend Dorothée. As it takes place on the occasion of a young couple's wedding, the villa is full of exuberant guests primed to celebrate romantic love. There can be no doubt that amid all this exuberance, withheld passion, and honorable conduct, things will turn out well.
For this production, Minnesota Opera recruited prolific playwright David Harrison Rivers to craft a new book (spoken lines are read in English) and translation of the libretto, sung in French with English surtitles. Rivers employs several playful anachronisms, including a joke borrowed from well-known 1980s film comedy. In keeping with the new look at this forgotten work and introduction to its unsung composer, we have composer Bologne and the playwright Stéphanie Félicité de Genlis as characters who awaken from museum-like niches on a balcony overlooking the drama, to pantomime their commentary on the declarations of love and merriment below.
The music is lovely throughout, veering from comic to romantic, sparing us anything melancholic. Conductor Christopher Franklin leads a full thirty-four-piece orchestra, complete with harpsichord, which plays in top form, giving a crisp, sprightly reading of Bologne's score. A duet between Valcour and Ophémon pleasingly pairs Carlos Enrique Santelli's yearning tenor, as Valcour, with Aaron Keeney's assured baritone, as Ophémon. A double soliloquy in which Valcour and Léontine express their feelings to the universe, but not to each other, brings their repressed desire for one another to a boil, and an aria for Léontine, rounded notes sung beautifully by soprano Symone Harcum, brings down the house.
As Dorothée, mezzo-soprano Zoie Reams offers a simmering performance of two songs by Bologne that have been interpolated into the opera, as entertainment for the rowdy wedding guests. These songs may serve as commentary on the narrative, but their primary effect is to provide yet more evidence of the composer's gifts, along with an opportunity for Ms. Reams to display her own considerable talent. Soprano Leah Brzyski as the bride and tenor Joseph Leppek as the groom add their lovely voices as they prepare to exchange wedding vows.
Director Maria Todaro creates a feeling of lightheartedness, with the resolution of Valcour's unspoken love for Léontine and her eagerness to accept his love a near parody of great romance, yet never descending into low humor that would cheapen their feelings. Todaro manages the sixteen-member chorus handily, creating a persona for each of them as they portray wedding guests eager for the festivities to begin. She acknowledges Monsieur Bologne's varied gifts by inserting a comic swordfight fought, playfully, between friends Valcour and Ophémon, and gives Valcour an opportunity to perform on violin, noting two of Bologne's prodigious talents.
Everything on stage looks smashing. Stephen Moravski's white set exudes an air of comfort. It offers suitable alcoves and pillars to hide behind as the plot requires. A large sculpture of a nude, black-skinned woman dressed in white, set on a pedestal in the middle of the open courtyard, strongly suggests that Valcour's extreme shyness is the exception, and not the rule, of the day. Ari Fulton has designed eye-catching costumes that draw upon the color and frill of Bologne's homeland in the Caribbean as well as the foppery of eighteenth-century French society. Lighting designer Mary Shabatura creates an ambience of brightness, be it the sun or the moon, over everything and everyone.
The Anonymous Lover does not prompt much in the way of deep thoughts, but it offers an awfully good time, feasting on gorgeous stagecraft, beautiful voices delivering a sparkling score that will be new to most of us, played with gusto by a top-drawer orchestra, and delivers numerous laughs and a wave of earnest good will.
The Anonymous Lover runs through February 13, 2022, presented by Minnesota Opera at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $35.00 - $228.00. Tempo Ticket Pricing (ages 21-45) - $33.00 - $73.00. Youth tickets (age 20 and below) available at Patron Services, $20.00. Rush tickets: unsold tickets 90 minutes before performance time are half price; Youth Rush tickets (age 20 and below) are $10.00. For tickets and information, call 612-333-6699 or visit www.mnopera.org.
Music: Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges; Libretto: Francois-Georges Fouques Deshayes, Desfontaines, based on the play L'Amant Anonyme by Stéphanie Félicité de Genlis, Madame de Genlis; New Script and Translations: Harrison David Rivers with Maria Todaro; Conductor: Christopher Franklin; Stage Director: Maria Todaro; Scenic Design: Stephan Moravski; Costume Design: Ari Fulton; Lighting Design: Mary Shabatura; Hair and Make-Up Design: Emma Gustafson; Co-Choreographers: Jennifer Mack and Djenane Saint Juste; Intimacy and Fight Director: Doug Scholz-Carlson; Assistant Conductor and Chorus Director: Andrew Whitfield; Assistant Director: Emily Bishai; Répétiteurs: Celeste Marie Johnson, Allen Perriello; Production Stage Manager: Emily Butzi.
Cast: Brian Bose (Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de saint-Georges), Leah Brzyski (Jeanette), Symone Harcum (Léontine), Aaron Keeney (Ophémon), Joseph Leppek (Colin), Jennifer Mack (Stéphanie Félicité de Genlis, Madame de Genlis), Zoie Reams (Dorothée), Carlos Enrique Santelli (Valcour).