When Charles Gounod was creating the role of Sganarelle in his opera-comique Le Médecin malgré lui (The Doctor in Spite of Himself), closely based on Molière’s comedy of the same name, he must have known a baritone very much like Stephen Salters, whose brilliant comic performance, ably abetted by an effective cast, utterly delighted at the BU Theater last night. [Final performance is Sunday at 2 pm.] It is hard to imagine a more richly satisfying interpretation, answering every requirement of the role: a sonorous lyric baritone also capable of high-speed comic patter, excellent French, a superb actor via body language, facial expressions, and vocal tone, and the ability, when called for, to include the audience as co-conspirators in his pranks.
For Odyssey Opera, Gil Rose assembled a cast of fine singing actors, which in this case also included fine comic sensibility, and a production staff to help it work on stage with directness and clarity. Rose conducted Gounod’s lovely score, charmingly designed to suggest an older musical style. It is not at all “genuine” Baroque music (Molière wrote his comedy in 1666), but it nonetheless feels like music of the past, crossed with many traditions of comic opera, including a few fast-moving ensembles that almost seem to anticipate Gilbert and Sullivan. (It is likely that Sullivan knew this score well.) Gounod wrote the work with spoken dialogue, drawn almost directly from Molière; that meant that the work could not be performed in the Opèra, which insisted that scores performed there be sung from beginning to end. In the 1920s, Diaghilev commissioned Erik Satie to connect the musical numbers with recitative, and it was that fully sung version that Odyssey mounted here. Surprisingly this fast-moving comic opera with many musical passages lively or lyrical by one of the great composers of 19th-century France had never been given in downtown Boston before, though Yale Opera did it in 2004, and Gordon College produced it in 2006 and 2008.
The three acts play without pause, giving a brief total running time of just under 90 minutes. Each act is in a different locale. The set is cleverly designed by Dan Daly to allow almost instantaneous changes, featuring a long, curved, sloping structure covered with green cloth in Act I (resembling an abstract forest where the woodcutter Sganarelle pursues his normal duties) which, once the cloth is removed, becomes a grand staircase in the house of Géronte. Brooke Stanton’s costumes call up the 17th-century setting and distinguish social position among the characaters. Christopher Ostrom’s lighting is clear and straightforward. Daniel Pelzig’s stage direction makes effective use of this space for all kinds of humorous physical and romantic activities, including one brief use of a side balcony in the audience space for a sight gag: the young lover Léandre first sings a serenade while holding a bouquet. His sweetheart Lucinde listens from a position at the head of the stairs onstage, looking off at him in the distance. As he ends the song, Léandre tosses the bouquet out of sight, and suddenly an identical one flies into Lucinde’s hands from a different direction offstage—as if jump-cutting between two movie scenes.
Sganarelle, one of Molière’s favorite characters, appeared in many of his comedies, often played by the author himself. In Le Médecin malgré lui, he is woodcutter involved in perpetual dispute with his wife Martine (Whitney Robinson) over his drinking and general unwillingness to work hard. Sganarelle’s introductory aria, in which he sings of the delights of the jug he carries—which, alas, is almost empty—gives a good sense of Sganarelle’s character; Salters showed why the first audiences so rapturously received the song.
Sganarelle and Martine bicker constantly and often descend to blows, spanking or prodding one another. This kind of horseplay was common in Molière’s work, though it is not likely to be found so comic in our time. Still, Daniel Pelzig stages it in a way that is not so violent as it might risk seeming, and the couple makes up after their argument. But while Sganarelle is off chopping wood, Martine vows she get revenge. Two men, Lucas and Valère, come from the wealthy Géronte (James Demler) to find a doctor who can cure his daughter Lucinde (Kristen Watson), who been struck mute. Martine informs them that her husband is a doctor—but a very quirky one, who loves chopping wood and who will deny that he is a medical man unless he is beaten to force him to confess. When Sganarelle returns, a good deal of persuasion is required to get him to “admit” that he is a doctor, but finally he does so (partly on the strength of his having learned Latin declensions and conjugations in his youth and seeing a way to use this knowledge).
As often happens in comedies of the period, a penniless young man (Léandre) loves the daughter (Lucinde) of a wealthy man (Géronte), who has in mind another suitor for her (not part of the plot here). To prevent herself from being married off to someone she does not love, Lucinde simply stages being mute. When Sganarelle arrives, he studies the case (and incidentally flirts with the lively nursemaid Jacquelyn, raising jealousy in the bosom of her husband Lucas), listening to Lucinde’s pulse and announcing that it reveals the rhythm of muteness. All are astonished at his acuity. Putting to good use the fact that no one in the house knows Latin, he offers an explanatory lecture, a detailed patter speech, made up of ludicrous Latin conjugations and popular mottoes, with a few words of Greek or Hebrew thrown in to impress. This takes the form of a very funny extended sextet, quite possibly the most brilliant number in the score, and alone making a case for the opera’s revival.
Happy in his new medical career, Sganarelle realizes that, whether your patient lives or not, the doctor collects his fee. Léandre asks for his help in marrying Lucinde; Sganarelle accepts the challenge (another fee!). He has the young man dress in black and passes him off as an apothecary. When he takes Lucinde’s pulse, she suddenly recovers the gift of speech. But the torrent of words does not please her father, since she repeats over and over that she will marry no one but Léandre. Vainly Géronte appeals to Sganarelle: Can he make her mute again? The young lovers rush off to marry, while Sganarelle is threatened with hanging for having abetted the plot. All is put well by an age-old theatrical solution: the death of a rich uncle makes Léandre a wealthy man, suddenly a favored son-in-law. Martine reclaims her husband, who is saved from the gallows, and all ends as, naturally, it should.
As usual, Odyssey Opera fielded a first-rate cast. The brilliance of Stephen Salters’s Sganarelle sparked his colleagues. Two of the principal figures are new to the company, but display talents that will make them welcome again often. The Polish tenor Piotr Buszewski gave an ardent, lyrical performance of the lover Léandre (and carried his sweetheart passionately up the long staircase at the end of the curtain calls). Tasha Anderson, a vivacious red-haired mezzo, showed herself lively and energetic as Jacqueline, the nursemaid of the house and the cause of jealous outbursts from her husband, Lucas. James Demler (Géronte), as the ever-worried father, fixated on his opposition to Lucinde’s marriage. Stefan Barner (Lucas) joined with Ryne Cherry (Valére) to find the doctor for Gèronte and thereafter run the madcap goings on in the house. Whitney Robinson (Sganarelle’s wife Martine) was seen only in Act One and the final closing moments of the opera. Her athletic fighting with her husband was imaginative and funny. Though Kristen Watson (Lucinde) was talked about for much of the opera, she had to remain mostly mute. Her stage movement, poses, and gestures played well as strong-willed daughter who knows her own mind—and when she “miraculously” recovers her voice, her brilliant high soprano tops the cast.
Gounod composed Le Médecin malgré lui immediately after Faust. Though both works achieved tremendous success (and Faust still retains its renown), it is a shame that Gounod didn’t continue in this comic realm.
Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.