MONSIGNY Le Roi et le fermier • Ryan Brown, cond; Thomas Michael Allen (Le Roi); William Sharp (Richard); Dominique Lambelle (Jenny); Thomas Dolié (Rustaut); Jeffrey Thompson (Lurewel); Delores Ziegler (La Mère); Yulia van DorenRead more (Betsy); Op Lafayette O • NAXOS 8.660322 (72:12)
This was a truly delightful surprise for me: an unknown opera by a (for me) unknown composer, which turned out to be absolutely marvelous. Le Roi et le fermier, or The King and the Farmer, was composed by Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny (1729–1817) in 1762 for the Comèdie Italienne theater in Paris. The libretto by Michel-Jean Sedaine was based on an English story—a popular fad in France at the time, but not universally liked since (according to the notes) “the intelligentsia grouped around the encyclopedists” considered the British monarchy too liberal. Certainly the plot of this light-hearted opera, which showed the King of England siding with a humble farmer against one of his own Lords, who abducts the farmer’s sweetheart, Jenny, and holds her prisoner in a tower to force her to marry him. Richard, the farmer, fears that Lord Lurewel has seduced her, but Jenny escapes the tower, returns to Richard, and pledges her loyalty to him.
Meanwhile, the King and his hunting party, going through Sherwood Forest where Richard lives (yes, there is a Sherwood Forest, just not really a Robin Hood!), has an accident with his horse, who stumbles and breaks his leg during a storm. Horseless, the King makes his way to Richard’s humble abode, where he presents himself as one of the King’s courtiers. Even this rank is exalted enough to stir Richard’s mother, Jenny, and their friend Betsy, to fawn all over him. Lurewal shows up and demands that Jenny return to him, but she refuses; he is about to take her by force when the King stands up, is suddenly recognized, and banishes Lurewal from his kingdom. The King, who has become fond of Richard and Jenny, asks if he might be permitted to attend their wedding, and all ends happily.
The music gets off to a somewhat sluggish start, largely due to the lackadaisical conducting of Brown, but as soon as the singing starts, the pace picks up, and by the time we reach the sprightly Betsy-Richard duet in act 1, “Non, non vous ne m’avez jamais traitée,” the opera is off and running. Curiously, it sounds as if the singers then “drive” the performance, as Brown’s conducting becomes more animated by degrees. By the time they reach the act 1 Finale, in which the sounds of the King’s hunting party are intermingled with the sound of a cloudburst, the entire performance becomes much more lively—and we really begin to admire the forward-looking and quite inventive music of Monsigny.
Another way in which this neglected composer was quite innovative is the surprisingly powerful bursts of orchestral force behind the singers, prefacing some of the reforms of Gluck and Cherubini much later in the century. Listen, particularly, to the highly creative construction he uses in the King’s long recitative and aria, “Dans les combats,” in act 2: this is music-writing on a very high level for its time and place. (By this point, we also note how Monsigny interweaves vocal runs and trills into the musical line in such a way that they sound musical and not extraneous, as they so often do in music of the “bel canto” era.) The very funny and rhythmically pointed duo between the other two tenors, Lurewel and the Courtesan, immediately follows the King’s aria and shows us another, different side of Monsigny’s musical arsenal. One could go on and on about the music, which just keeps surprising and delighting the listener throughout the rest of the opera, but more to the point, also the highly involved and brilliant interpretation of all of the singers.
Prior to hearing this recording, I was only familiar with three names in the cast: baritone William Sharp (Richard), who is pretty well known in the U.S.A. for his singing of Baroque music, Haydn, and Mozart; tenor Thomas Michael Allen (King), who has a pretty active international career, having sung a wide range of music from Monteverdi to Henze, but primarily Baroque works with such luminaries as René Jacobs, Marc Minkowski, and Helmuth Rilling; and, of course, mezzo Delores Ziegler, who has had an almost legendary international career, here singing the role of Richard’s mother. Her voice is now on its downside, but she is still a marvelous character singer and a valuable addition to this cast. But—as I’ve had occasion to argue with an opera-loving friend of mine—one does not have to hire “big names” for every role nowadays in order to guarantee a quality performance, and this is proven by the immaculate, well-focused, and lively singing of the fairly large cast behind them. Soprano Dominique Labelle (Jenny) has a slightly darkish timbre, well-focused tone, superb breath support, good technique, and a lively sense of character. The same may be said for her counterpart, soprano Yulia van Doren (Betsy), whose brighter, more silvery voice is equally up to her task. Moreover, the “character” roles are also sung extraordinarily well, so much so that I felt as if, in a pinch, baritone Thomas Dolié (Rustaut) and tenor Jeffrey Thompson (Lurewel) could fill in for Sharp and Allen were they to become indisposed. That’s how good, and how even, this entire cast is.
Given that the excellence of the spoken dialogue is often referred to in the slim liner notes, I was a little disappointed that at least seven minutes’ worth wasn’t recorded within the context of this recording, but as in the case of most (if not all) of Naxos’s presentations of obscure 18th-century operas, you have to go online to get the libretto (in both French and English) which includes not only a translation of all the sung portions but also the missing dialogue. Perhaps, someday, we might get a good video production of this work and others like it, but in the meantime I can heartily recommend this recording. It’s truly a gem.
Le Roi et le fermierby Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny Performer:
Jeffrey Thompson (Tenor),
Thomas Dolié (Tenor),
Dominique Labelle (Soprano),
Thomas Michael Allen (Tenor),
William Sharp (Baritone),
Delores Ziegler (Mezzo Soprano),
Yulia Van Doren (Soprano),
David Newman (Baritone),
Tony Boutté (Tenor)
Opera Lafayette Orchestra
Period: Classical Written: 1762 Date of Recording: 1/2012 Venue: Dekelboum Hall, University of Maryland
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Very entertaining comic opera!January 1, 2014By Warren Harris See All My Reviews"This disc is a recording of an Opera Lafayette production of Le Roi et le fermier (The King and the Farmer) by Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny, which was performed for the first time in November of 1762 (according to the well-written and informative liner notes). Conducted by Ryan Brown, who champions works from the 18th century, the orchestra is spritely, warm, and a treat to listen to. And given that the sets are from the time of Marie- Antoinette, who actually performed the role of Jenny on more than one occasion, this had to be a historical delight to see in person. In this case, the recording itself is wonderful. Kudos goes to Dominique Labelle (soprano) in the role of Jenny, as well as Thomas Michael Allen (tenor) as the King. I also note that the sound effects during the storm sequence (wind machine, etc.) definitely added an air of fun as well as enhancing the I wish I could see this live feeling of the production. The story itself is comic and simplistic, but that definitely works for the musical material. The only thing I could have wished for was the actual libretto to be printed in the liner notes, as I would have enjoyed following along with the recording. All that being said, this is a fun recording of a production that the cast obviously enjoyed putting on, and I very much enjoyed listening to it. Delightfully recommended."Report Abuse