The funny “The Anonymous Lover” from Haymarket Opera
It would be poetic for Joseph Bologne, the only surviving opera by the Chevalier de Saint-Georges to be called “The Anonymous Lover” if it weren’t so tragic.
In life, Bologna was no less than a Parisian celebrity, an 18th-century Renaissance man equally accomplished in music, fencing and warfare. After his death in 1799, however, Bologna himself was washed into anonymity, an omission not only racist – Bologna was the son of a Senegalese woman and her slaveholder, a white French nobleman – but politically calculated. Despite its own egalitarian politics, Bologna was an aristocrat with the misfortune of living through the French Revolution. He was eventually imprisoned, exiled, and banned from joining the French army.
Fortunately, Bologna’s legacy has always been more difficult things. His music has been recorded in spurts for decades, but his recent resurgence is on a whole new level.
Let’s take Haymarket Opera Company’s “The Anonymous Lover” as a local data point. Despite the apparent ubiquity of the overture in the past season, the 1780 Bologna Opera had never been heard in Chicago in its entirety until Haymarket’s June 19 weekend at the magnificent new Jarvis Opera. DePaul Hall. (The South Shore Opera Company intended to premiere in Chicago in 2020; we don’t need to say what happened next.)
The addition of “The Anonymous Lover” to Haymarket’s repertoire may be long overdue, but it is no less relevant. Sometimes cutesy and almost always wacky, Bologna’s comical opera harnesses the candy spirit of other obscure light operas premiered in Chicago by the period company over the years, the musical and dramatic performance conventions of the time, as always, scrupulously observed by musical director Craig Trumpeter and director and choreographer Sarah Edgar.
The plot of Bologna is worthy of a romantic comedy: Valcour (tenor Geoffrey Agpalo) longs for her friend Léontine (soprano Nicole Cabell), single since the death of her good-for-nothing husband and womanizer. Politeness prevents Valcour from officially soliciting Léontine’s affections, so instead he writes her flamboyant, unsigned love letters to gauge her interest in taking on a new beau. The ruse reveals, both to their mutual friends and to Léontine herself, that she can only bear to remarry if it is with Valcour.
Think “She likes me” or “You’ve got mail,” but instead of being a business rival, your reluctant crush is your attractive, aloof best friend.
Like the instrumental music of Bologna, “The Anonymous Lover” sparkles with a virtuoso flair, flouting here and there classical conventions in structure and phrasing. But as a stage work, “The Anonymous Lover” tells us little about the kind of playwright Bologna was, for the half-dozen other points of comparison he wrote are lost in time. We cannot say with certainty whether “The Anonymous Lover” is his strongest work, and it is certainly imperfect: the opera weakens noticeably in its second act, overwhelmed by undue redundancies and a confession of love. in minor disappointment marked, inexplicably, for central lovers and Valcour’s winger, Ophemon (bass-baritone David Govertsen).
But Haymarket has yielded as delicious a production of this overlooked candy as one could imagine. It helped the small-but-mighty company land another impressive cast in Cabell, a head-and-shoulders star as the conflicted Leontine. Cabell skillfully and convincingly shades her beaming soprano so that we never forget that Léontine, unlike many of the leading ingenues of 18th-century opera, has already loved and lost. She also elucidated Bologna’s sometimes vexing vocal writing for the role, her throbbing voice up to the high Cs rolled into unexpected moments with the effortless panache of an improvisation.
It’s not easy to go neck and neck with a star like Cabell, but Chicago native Agpalo was more than up to the task. He brought a room-filling bel canto sensibility to the fiery Valcour, his tenor sumptuous, fluid and lip-smacking sweetness.
A regular at Haymarket, Govertsen gave depth and dapperness to Ophemon, portrayed here as a good-natured provincial nobleman and jovial conspirator in the plan of Valcour. Govertsen’s voice is authoritative by default, but in “The Anonymous Lover” he shone above all as a simpatico duo and trio partner, his bass-baritone evolving in an impressive palette of hues and opacities.
As one half of the peasant couple, the company’s other stalwart, Erica Schuller, didn’t quite follow that cue, her effervescent soprano well-suited to Jeannette’s coloratura spotlights but overpowering in ensemble settings. . Invited to participate in some of the production’s ballet interludes, Schuller and tenor Michael St. Peter — endearingly fervent as Jeannette’s fiancé, Colín — impressively took on Edgar’s lively and charming choreography. with grace and assurance.
But if Haymarket is guilty of a casting faux pas here, that rarely gives luminous soprano Nathalie Colas a chance to shine. Dorothée, Léontine’s confidante, was originally conceived as a non-singing role; at the very least, the original edition of Haymarket’s score, compiled by Gregg Sewell, glues it to the backing vocals at the beginning and end.
The trumpeter’s direction in the pit gave a new face to the two-and-a-half-century-old Bologna opera, especially its richly textured, tenanto version of the overture. Only a few moments called for more variety in tempo and transitions, such as the transition from final ballet to final chorus. The Haymarket Orchestra sounded particularly Technicolor in the Jarvis Hall pit, with feathered woodwinds and shape-shifting strings. But some of the opera’s most triumphant moments were seriously hailed by the orchestra’s valveless natural horns, stubbornly out of tune on Saturday.
Commitment to period-appropriate details – like those fragile but era-specific natural horns – is an inalienable signature of Haymarket. He is also responsible for some of the most sumptuous details of this “The Anonymous Lover”, such as the impressive hand-painted sets by Wendy Waszut-Barrett and the intricate costumes by Stephanie Cluggish, perched at the intersection of historical fidelity and fantasy.
But it’s fair to wonder if the creative team’s decision to set the action in Bologna’s own setting, the France of 1780, was inspired or merely practical. We can only assume that in Haymarket’s “The Anonymous Lover”, the French Revolution that would end Bologna’s fortunes, and by extension his life, is only a decade away. This makes the denouement of the opera – in which the peasant Colín and Jeannette not only bestow nuptial blessings on Léontine and Valcour, but willingly share a double marriage with the feudal couple – remarkably remarkable.
It may be naive. It may be picturesque. It may even be an aspiration. In a way, the finale of “The Anonymous Lover” contredanse brokers a bologna class truce never lived to see.
But I suspect Haymarket’s “The Anonymous Lover” didn’t seek to elicit poignant sociopolitical commentary. Rather the opposite. It was a pure and frothy escape, a entertainment in the truest sense for the lucky participants of the sold-out Haymarket race. And that’s a statement I’ll happily sign off on.
Through June 19 at Jarvis Opera Hall, DePaul University’s Holtschneider Performance Center; www.haymarketopera.org
Hannah Edgar is a freelance writer.
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