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BLO Englishizes L’amant anonyme

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Valcour (Omar Najmi) opines to Jeannette (Ashlee Emerson) (Nile Scott Studios photo)

The Boston Lyric Opera’s charming production of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges’s only surviving opera, The Anonymous Lover (1780), ran at the Huntington Theater last weekend. The show continued the BLO’s 2023-2024, four-opera exploration of love follows the widow Léontine (Brianna J. Robinson) who starts receiving letters from an anonymous admirer. Her secret lover, obscuring his identity out of fear of unreciprocated emotions, is none other than Léontine’s close friend, Valcour (Omar Najmi). A comedic dance of courtship ensues between the two as Valcour covertly persuades Léontine to love again. While the leads gradually inch closer to romance, love seems inescapable in the surrounding characters. Jeanette (Ashley Emerson) and Colin (Zhengyi Bai) represent the archetypal doting couple professing the joys of love in a marvelously rendered duet at their wedding. Even the comedic relief duo of Dorothée (Sandra Piques Eddy) and Ophémon (Evan Hughes) find themselves falling for each other throughout the chaotic revelry of courtship.

The works of Chevalier de Saint-Georges, arguably the most influential Black composer and violinist in 18th-century France and a contemporary of Mozart, have enjoyed a critical and popular renaissance recently. The Hollywood film Chevalier (2022) allowed the composer to make a mark in pop culture. The BLO’s continued this renaissance with a fitting and rousing story for Valentine’s weekend.

In the modern world of the arts, it has been en vogue to mount modern flashy productions of centuries-old stories while maintaining the original text. Baz Luhrmann’s film Romeo + Juliet (1996) comes to mind as but one popular example, but such directorial conceits have long frequented the opera world as well, with Dmitri Tcherniakov’s 2018 direction of Tristan und Isolde at the Staatsoper Berlin or Robert Carsen’s 2018 direction of Giulo Cesare in Egitto at the Teatro alla Scala coming to mind as a few of many examples.

The BLO’s rendition of The Anonymous Lover flips this trend on its head by maintaining period-piece costumes and set designs while changing the libretto. Playwright Kirsten Greenidge provided a new book adaptation that mixed English dialogue with the original French singing. While Greenidge achieved a commendable feat of writing easily comprehensible English for a modern American audience that still maintained the feel and emotion of 18th-century dialogue, the biggest problem with the production rested in the decision to use English.

While aiding comprehension and accessibility, switching from belting arias of abstract declarations and musings on love sung in 18th-century French to vernacular English for mundane dialogue whiplashed the emotional core. Opposing narratives competed, with each actor seeming to play two different characters. English Valcour and French Valcour felt like two unrelated people. Imagine how dissonant a movie would be if the main character suddenly switched their dialect and accent with no narrative explanation.

Many times a tear-jerking aria or duet would give way to dialogue operating on a separate emotional beat. This is not to belittle the English portions, although they were certainly trumped by the brilliance of the singing, rather they failed to cohere with the French moments to produce a unified narrative. Hughes treaded these dissonant narratives best, delivering the best acting of the production with an emotionally consistent characterization across both languages that induced much laughter. But the heart of the story lies in the budding romance between Valcour and Léontine and though Omar Najmi sang and acted impressively and movingly his scenes of English dialogue did not convince me that his character was in love.

To audience members familiar with her recent work as Julie in Omar, it came as no surprise that Brianna Robinson stole the show. While Najmi’s singing proved notable, Robinson took the spotlight from the titular character with her virtuosic and soulful vocal control. In the English scenes her acting took second place only to Hughes; she convinced us with her transformation to a woman who learns to accept love once more.

While the set design and lighting wonderfully evoked 18th -century bourgeois France, Leslie Travers’s costume design must be singled out. Léontine’s gowns appeared regal yet not flashy. The chamber orchestra, placed behind the actors on stage and separated by a backdrop, also impressed with a period-appropriate understated and confident performance guided by the infallible baton of long-time BLO Music Director David Angus.

Even though the production faced issues of narrative emotional resonance, I commend the spirit of experimentation. Running an overlooked historical work from a marginalized author like Chevalier de Saint-Georges, which lacks centuries of canonical performances and expectations, welcomes new perspectives. And we applaud BLO’s understanding that not every show needs to be a masterpiece.

The Cast of BLO’s The Anonymous Lover (Nile Scott Studios photo)

The English portion of the production works on its own, but it clashes against the French singing to the detriment of the story. Perhaps after more workshopping the English can become more emotionally French or the French more English, but ultimately the solution likely lies in returning to the original libretto of Desfontaines-Lavallée (based on a play by Madame de Genlis). Witty supertitles can free the singular music to appeal to both newcomers and opera veterans.

The BLO’s will close its season on love with Eurydice: music by Matthew Aucoin and libretto by Sarah Ruhl. Performances will run March 1st -10th at the Huntington. Tickets HERE.

Matthew Winkler is studying music and history at Tufts university. He is a composer and researcher who also plays jazz and classical trumpet. 

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  1. I have seen one 18th-century French play, Marivaux’s “The Game of Love and Chance” as done by the Huntington in the late ’90’s. What I suspect is that French playwrights may have created more individualized personalities for their characters than English practice at the time–just a hunch. Yes, I noticed that the female “sidekick” was portrayed a bit in the style of Fran Drescher from The Nanny; maybe a sop to modern tastes as the BLO seems fond of doing. Meaning that the French play the opera is (probably) based on may have the characters written like that. I suspect French drama was different from English drama and as English speakers we are used to English practice. For the music, sing in French as it kits better; for dialogue do English because cognizance is important/ OK, so 18th-century opera works like that with Action (mostly) in the recitatives and the Feelings in the set-piece arias. BOTTOM LINE: I found what they did acceptable as a solution to making the opera “work”. The French, even Black French, can be “different” as we say.
    Musically, the work came as a welcome respite of the juvenile, puerile, or infantile Mozart we are often subjected to; I wanted to see how the Chevalier handled opera–this is supposedly his ONLY surviving opera. OK, I’m NOT trying to be a White Savior–I DO prefer his violin concerti over Mozart’s overperformed concerti on WCRB/WGBH. Yes, the Chevalier DOES overdo repeated chords in his endings when Haydn usually sufficed with just THREE (almost like the Three Rocks in Ernie Bushmiller’s “Nancy” according to Bill Griffith). Nicely staged; sound was occasionally weak but improved as went along. Kudos for BLO for grabbing the Black History Month opportunity to do this one!
    A short note on the Chevalier no one has mentioned anywhere this Black-History Month; it’s buried in Ulrich Phillips’ book on slavery in the chapter on Free Persons of Color. In 1772 the Chevalier, at a time when he was nearly unanimously regarded as one of the best fencers in France if not Europe, was challenged to a duel by a White man who was NOT regarded as a very good fencer–but it was a challenge that could not be denied. The duel was fought and the challenger was killed. However, the case came to be regarded in court and the Parlement of Paris–the top law court for France–ruled that the dead man had committed suicide (!) and thus his estate was forfeit to the crown! The 18th century version of Suicide by Cop–Suicide by Chevalier de St. George!
    Now I’m eagerly awaiting Odyssey Opera’s Black History offerings.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — March 3, 2024 at 7:12 pm

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