Notes and Editorial Reviews
To call Philidor’s Tom Jones an opera is stretching it. How about a play with some songs? Growing out of the Italian intermezzo, the French created the comédie mêlée d’ariettes, later referred to as the opéra-comique, of which Tom Jones is a good example. The plot is advanced in the dialogue portions, then the action stops so the characters can tell us how happy (or sad, or peeved) they are, or to discuss the recent turn of events, or implore another character to do their bidding. The songs are very melodic, although a similarity gives the impression that many could be interchangeable. Most of the numbers are solos, only rarely is there music involving more than one singer. The songs are like isolated musical oases between long, long stretches of spoken dialogue.
The story bears only the most passing resemblance to Fielding’s novel. Instead of a chronicle of lusty Tom’s amorous adventures, the musical Tom Jones is about marrying Sophie to Blifil for his family’s money. Sophie, of course, rejects the marriage because she loves Tom, who, of course, loves her, too. Besides, Blifil smells bad (yes, it’s true; it’s in the libretto, page 25). But, Tom is lowly born—or so everyone thinks. He’s actually Squire Allworthy’s legitimate (no bastard children in this opera) nephew and heir. Blifil knows this because he intercepted a letter, which he has kept hidden. (Why he didn’t destroy the evidence is unknown, and presumably beside the point!). The letter is found, Blifil is disinherited, Tom wins Sophie’s hand plus the Squire’s blessing and the inheritance. Virtue is triumphant, everyone sings a happy tune, and we’re out in time to catch the bus.
The text by Antoine-Alexandre-Henri Poinsinet (how many folks do you know with two hyphens in their name?) and Bertín Davesne has been “adapted” by Vincent Vittoz. In this updated version, Mrs. Western is overseeing some construction; she wears a hard hat with her fancy outfit, and gives orders to her crew regarding polyethylene pipes made of PSE Th38.
It’s a lively, fast-paced, energetic production with solid musical contributions. A cast of good actors who can sing has been assembled with an orchestra of 25 musicians. Jean-Claude Malgoire is listed as conductor, but I couldn’t find a credit for the stage director. Audience response is limited to a few chuckles and occasional applause. Stage noises are present but not intrusive. The sound and balances are very good. If you understand French, or collect obscure operas, you might have an interest in this historical curiosity; otherwise listening to reams of dialogue in French is likely to become tedious. Of the 136 minutes, probably fewer than 45 or 50 are music, and since the dialogue is not tracked individually, isolating the musical material is difficult. A single disc of just the music (such as Supraphon’s recording of Benda’s 1765 comic opera Der Dorfjahrmarkt that eliminated the spoken portions) might have more appeal. If a video of this production becomes available, it would likely be recommended over the CD. Photos in the booklet show it to be an unorthodox staging.
A curious footnote: enclosed in the CD sent for review was a note card labeled Errata Corrige. The message is in four languages, here is the English: “For technical reasons the duet between Sophia and Mrs. Western was eliminated. Track No. 9 of CD 1 was consequently re-positioned on the preceding dialogue. We apologise with our clients.” In other words, the duet that would have been track 9 (the act I finale) is missing, and the dialogue following Sophie’s aria (track 8) becomes track 9. The text to the missing duet remains in the libretto.
FANFARE: David L. Kirk