« Baltimore, National symphonies to play Carnegie Hall's 2013 Spring for Music | Main | Midweek Madness: The art of the fugue, Lady Gaga-style »

January 24, 2012

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.


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:24 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera


I couldn't agree more. I saw the production at the Atlas on Friday (rather than the sold out performance you seem to have seen at the Kennedy Center). I found the evening to be a complete delight.

Opera goers often seem to break into two groups: the ones who want to see a 'classic' presentation of the 'classic repertoire' and those who are always interested in something new, something that we've not seen before. Although mostly I am just happy to take whatever I can get, I usually find myself in that second category.

This company has always been a particular delight; this is not just because they revive wonderful operas that even reasonably educated opera buffs might never have even heard about, let alone heard performed. But they always do such a beautiful job!

This production, as always with Opera Lafayette, was such a wonderful chance to hear an excellent production of an opera that is not only lovely and rarely (if ever) performed, but has historic significance as well!

I quite agreed with all of your review. So count me amongst your ditto-heads....

The only thing I might add would be to expand a little on the really great jobs by Thomas Dolie (Rustaut) and David Newman (Charlot). Both were wonderful.

I thought the baritone, in particular, has an especially lovely, rich voice combined with a very effective characterization - especially when his part expanded somewhat in the second half. I'm going to keep an eye out for that young man in the future!

Another thing that I would like to add was that the enunciation of the opera, written in 18th century French, was delightful! With my limited French, I entered the theatre with the assumption that I would have to be relying on the surtitles.

But I was wrong! The performers were as crystal clear as any could want and, for me, the surtitles were mostly unnecessary, even with my (severe) limitations

This was a pleasant surprise for me; although, given the past quality of Opera Lafayette productions (and especially the association of Didier Rousselet), perhaps I should not have been surprised at all.

I also loved the performance given by Dominique Labelle, as Jenny. Her last aria was especially exquisite.

Although the minimalist production was delightfully done, oh, what a treat for the French audience to be able to see the production with the 1780 sets! What an amazing thing that they still exist at all, let alone that they are still usable!

And of course, what opera fan could resist the chance to note and celebrate that here was a relatively obscure opera, produced and performed brilliantly, which was SOLD OUT for weeks in advance of the performance!

This kind of presents a small argument against those who claim (not without some justice) that there is a financial necessity to do only the ABCs, eh?

Best of all, it is my understanding that the cast was at the UMD (a WONDERFUL recording space!) that week making a recording of the production.

Post a comment

All comments must be approved by the blog author. Please do not resubmit comments if they do not immediately appear. You are not required to use your full name when posting, but you should use a real e-mail address. Comments may be republished in print, but we will not publish your e-mail address. Our full Terms of Service are available here.

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
View the Artsmash blog

Baltimore Sun coverage
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop
Famous faces in classical music
Sign up for FREE entertainment alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for nightlife text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Weekend Watch newsletter
Plan your weekend with's best events, restaurant and movie reviews, TV picks and more delivered to you every Thursday for free.
See a sample | Sign up

Most Recent Comments
Stay connected