For a long time now, Paris’s enterprising Opéra Comique has been in the business of exploring the far reaches of the operatic repertoire. Its programming ranges from contemporary works like George Benjamin’s dark Written on Skin (2012) to revivals of those mythically famous Parisian nineteenth-century blockbusters—early Romantic operas like those by Ferdinand Hérold (Le Pré aux Clercs), Belle Époque charmers by Charles Lecocq (Ali Baba), and elegant trifles like André Messager’s Fortunio and Reynaldo Hahn’s Ciboulette. Though infrequently heard these days, this music—warm, worldly, witty, and always beautifully performed—is delightful, a charming alternative to the heavier diet offered by the world’s major houses.
François-Adrien Boieldieu’s La Dame blanche (The Woman in White), the Opéra Comique’s latest revival, has a special place in its history. When another work was cancelled a month before its premiere in late 1825, the Opéra Comique management asked Boieldieu and his librettist, Eugène Scribe, to come up with something—anything!—as a stopgap. Scribe (living up to his name) cooked up an outlandish plot based on chunks of Walter Scott novels that involved a ghost (the eponymous Woman in White), orphans, a romantic Scottish castle, an imminent foreclosure, lovable rustics, a villain and crooked judge, a faithful retainer, buried treasure, hidden panels, dreams and portents, mistaken identity, all- conquering love, and, for a bit of spice, a close-but-no-cigar suggestion of incest. More than a stopgap, La Dame blanche became an overnight sensation, to the tune of over a thousand performances at the Opéra Comique alone. On the critical side, even the notoriously hard- to-please Richard Wagner considered it a small masterpiece.
It is, though, very much of its time as a piece of music, notwithstanding the production’s attempts to bring it more politically up to date. The overture (during which the current production features the Woman in White breaking up an attempted rape) is a curious affair. Based on Scottish folksong, it is a blend of compositional styles featuring the instrumental color of Carl Maria von Weber (another opera composer who used the supernatural) and the structure and flourishes of Rossini (even to the extent of the crescendi). Though containing the germs of several themes found in the first act, the overture is stylistically disjointed from Boieldieu’s music, and despite the best efforts of the conductor, Julien Leroy, it certainly seemed so in this performance.
The singing was good but a bit uneven. The orphan-hero Georges Brown (yes, that is his name) is a demanding role, and the tenor Philippe Talbot waned a little toward the end, though he marshalled his resources effectively when dealing with higher registers. Anna (Georges’ adopted sister and love interest), sung by the soprano Elsa Benoit, was in excellent voice throughout. The dastardly Gaveston, the guardian of Anna and would-be purchaser of the castle (with funds embezzled from Anna and George’s dead parents), was sung to good effect by the baritone Jérôme Boutillier, the sort of villain we love to hate. The chorus was well rehearsed and responsive.
The second act built to a good climax with the auction scene, in which Gaveston wears down the efforts of the local peasants bidding to keep the castle from falling into his hands. The villain is in turn trumped by Georges, bidding money he doesn’t have, which buys him a few hours time for the deus ex machina motif to play out—the Woman appearing with a large bag of gold equal to the knock-down price of the corrupt judge, thwarting the despicable Gaveston. But despite the liveliness and charm of Boieldieu’s music, one could sympathize with the nearby gentleman in the audience who, at each increasingly implausible plot turn, rolled his eyes, muttered, and gestured theatrically toward the stage, panto style—that’s all part of the fun at the Opéra Comique.
Gioacchino Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle was, with the exception of several small pieces for piano, about the last thing he wrote. Long retired from opera, Rossini whiled away his days in Passy walking, gardening, and writing little pieces for piano, voice, and ensemble that he called his Péchés de viellesse, sins of old age. The Petite messe was his “last mortal sin.” It is a striking, impassioned, and elegant work, what might be called in its unorchestrated version a chamber mass for four singers, chorus, and (depending on the version) either one or two pianos and harmonium.
This week’s performance at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées had a peculiar twist. In his original score, Rossini indicated that the work was to be performed by “three sexes, men, women and castrati,” an instruction which for obvious reasons performers are reluctant to follow these days, in favor of the more usual S-A-T-B configuration. Last week, however, the Théâtre announced that due to sickness, the contralto would be replaced by the countertenor Carlo Vistoli. The result was impressive indeed, with Mr. Vistoli bringing good attack and precision to his role, especially in the concluding Agnus Dei.
The Petite messe, for all its liturgical associations, is also great vocal theater. The three-part Kyrie creates, suspends, and releases tension over its brief lifespan: it opens with a haunting, obsessively repeated piano accompaniment for the rising basses that is ornamented by the harmoniums before dying away; an unaccompanied chorus follows in the middle Christe and finishes with a wonderfully lyrical Kyrie whose sensuous modulations make one wonder if it really is appropriate for divine worship. The ensuing six-part Gloria is spectacularly operatic. The tenor Cyrille Dubois delivered a rippingly good Domine deus, while the bass Daniele Antonangeli gave a powerful if understated Quonium tu solus. All four soloists and the chorus brought the first part to a close with the remarkable Cum sancto spirito—seldom do fugues sing as jolly and uplifting as this.
Bart Van Reyn did a nice job with the chorus, but the real star of the evening was the pianist, Tanguy de Williencourt, who knew exactly where he was, where he was going, and what needed to be done throughout. His interaction with the singers was thoughtful and sensitive, never overwhelming. The harmoniumist, Bart Rodyns, accompanied with good balance and color, adding the necessary touch of fairground or altar, as required, to Mr. de Williencourt’s more exuberant effusions.