Opera Lafayette returns with Westernized retooling of a French Baroque comedy

Fri Sep 10, 2021 at 12:00 pm

Ashley Marie Robillard, Joshua Conyers, Frank Kelley, and Arnold Livingston Geis (on floor) in Opera Lafayette’s production of Le Maréchal Ferrant. Photo: Kara Hess

As classical music organizations tentatively return to live performances this fall, a picture is emerging of how the pandemic has altered the landscape. Some groups will retain aspects of remote presentation going forward, and others will disappear completely, unable to sustain themselves financially.

One group that has beaten the odds is Opera Lafayette. On Thursday night, the historical opera ensemble presented a live performance of its mostly English-language adaptation of Le Maréchal Ferrant, the 1761 opéra-comique composed by François-André Danican Philidor.

Shifted from its original French setting to a blacksmith’s shop in the American West, this clever staging appeared first in video form last fall, in the midst of the coronavirus shutdowns, recorded on a Colorado ranch. (It was not the opera’s first time in the United States, however. Scholar Oscar Sonneck tentatively identified the work, titled as The Blacksmith, performed in Boston, by a traveling troupe led by Alexander Placide in 1793.)

The Barns at Wolf Trap, an intimate indoor theater built from two restored 18th-century barns, was an apt agricultural-styled venue for this one-night gala performance. In an attempt to mitigate the danger of the ongoing pandemic, the number of attendees was limited and all were required to present vaccination cards and wear masks.

The libretto, drawn from a Boccaccio story by Antoine-François Quétant and Louis Anseaume, concerns Marcel, a well-meaning but rough-hewn blacksmith. He attempts to pair his young daughter, Jeannie, with an old ranch hand named MacBride. After many mishaps, Jeannie is married off to her young cowboy, Cody, while Marcel’s shrewish sister, Claudine, is instead united with MacBride.

Soprano Ashley Marie Robillard, a one-time studio artist with Wolf Trap Opera, stepped in admirably to replace an ailing colleague as Jeannie, deploying an agile and svelte tone. Her acting skills enhanced her turn as the sweet ingenue, complete with a disarming snort of laughter, both embarrassing and charming.

She was matched in scope by tenor Arnold Livingston Geis, an alumnus of Washington National Opera’s Cafritz Young Artists program, as the hammy, earnest Cody. With a full head of long, pandemic hair and ridiculous handlebar mustache, Geis played the role with a combination of vocal beauty, folksy earnestness, and absurd exaggeration. The latter was notably true of Geis’s death spasms, as Cody was drugged with a potion intended for an amputation patient.

The largest and most splendid voice came from baritone Joshua Conyers, also familiar from both WNO and Wolf Trap Opera, as the preacher Eustis. Soprano Pascale Beaudin made a spiteful Claudine, sharp-edged in vocal tone and with a viperous glare. Québec baritone Dominique Côté had a few shortcomings at the top of the blacksmith’s range, but his mannerisms and vigor made up for this deficit. Tenor Frank Kelley was a whiny, strained MacBride, appropriately absurd, especially as the character got more and more drunk.

Philidor’s score for this opera is among his most charming and inventive, with much clever patter and many humorous ensembles. One of the standouts was the trio “Que voulez-vous?” at the end of the first act, in which Conyers and Kelley excitedly described the noisy travails of their sick and lamed animals to Beaudin (“hi hi han!” and “clopant clopin!”). They come seeking the help of the blacksmith, who served as farm veterinarian and village surgeon.

The opera is also dotted with vaudevilles, popular songs fitted with new words appropriate to the story. This contrafactum technique, also used in the English ballad opera, for example, gave popular appeal to many kinds of comic opera in the 18th century. Audiences even sang along with the tunes that they knew by heart.

Opera Lafayette’s artistic director Ryan Brown and English translator Nick Olcott took the ingenious step of replacing these French tunes with American folk songs, including “Skip to My Lou,” “Shenandoah,” “I Dream of Jeannie,” “Down in the Valley,” “The Old Gray Mare,” and others. The characters often encouraged the audience to sing along, even holding up cue cards with the lyrics printed on them, reminiscent of the narrative panels in old silent films.

This historical innovation excused some of the less polished aspects of the performance. A four-person band gave a scratchy approximation of Philidor’s score, with Brown on violin, Dylan Kober on guitar, and Doug Balliett on double bass. Dom Flemons, an American folk music specialist, joined on banjo and other folk instruments, mostly for the added folk songs. (A brief recital by Flemons preceded the performance.)

Olcott directed a pleasing production, with typical Western decor (scenic design by Lisa Schlenker) and hat-topped outfits (costume design by Marsha LeBoeuf). The spirited finale, transformed into a rambunctious hoedown, brought the evening to an effervescent close, capped by a champagne toast to the season to come.

Opera Lafayette will continue its season next year, with a program called “Concert Spiritual aux Caraïbes” (February 10, 2022) and a full staging of Grétry’s opera Silvain (June 2 and 3). operalafayette.org


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