Stage Door Review 2023

L’Amant anonyme

Monday, March 20, 2023


by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, directed by Guillermo Silva-Marin

VOICEBOX: Opera in Concert, Jane Mallett Theatre,Toronto

March 19, 2023

“Jouissez de l’allégresse”

VOICEBOX: Opera in Concert has concluded its 2022-23 season with a major rarity – L’Amant anonyme, an opéra-comique from 1780 by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-99). Bologne was famous in his day, a friend of composers Salieri, Gossec, Grétry, Mozart and Gluck. Of his six operas, L’Amant anonyme is the only one to survive complete. After Bologne’s death the work and the composer fell into obscurity, and the opera did not receive a second production until 2020 when it was revived by Los Angeles Opera and the Colburn School. In the VOICEBOX production it proves to be a thoroughly delightful piece, completely undeserving of its neglect, and all the more important for being one of the few early operas to have been written by a biracial composer.

Joseph Bologne was born on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, the son of a wealthy French plantation owner and an enslaved Senegalese woman. Though illegitimate, he was sent to France in 1753 for his education at age seven. He excelled both in fencing and in music. In 1766 he was made Gendarme du roi (officer of the king's bodyguard) and a chevalier (knight). From this point on he adopted the title Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

In 1769 he joined a new orchestra founded by the eminent French composer François-Joseph Gossec, and two years later was made concertmaster and began composing. It was Bologne who commission Franz Joseph Haydn to compose what are now known as the six “Paris Symphonies”. Among many other works, Bologne wrote six operas, twelve violin concertos and four symphonies concertantes, a form he helped popularize.

Bologne’s rise in both the military and music worlds brought him in contact with the best-known composers of the day and with the aristocracy. He became a favourite of Madame de Montesson (1738-1806), the mistress and later wife of Louis Philippe I, Duke of Orléans, a member of the ruling family of France. Madame de Montesson, an actor and playwright, had her own private theatre, and it was there that L’Amant anonyme had its premiere. It has its Canadian premiere in 2021 by Opera McGill.

The libretto is based on the play of the same name by Caroline-Stéphanie-Félicité, Madame de Genlis (1746-1830), a niece of Madame de Montesson, as adapted by  François-Georges Fouques Deshayes known as “Desfontaines”. One often reads that the plot of L’Amant anonyme, is slight, but in fact the author seems to have influenced by the kind of psychological comedy of which Pierre de Marivaux (1688-1763) was a pioneer. The character of Léontine appears to be borrowed from the Marquise in La Seconde surprise de l’amour (1727).

In most comedy before Marivaux an external blocking figure prevents young lovers from being united. In Marivaux what blocks the characters is a situation they themselves have created or their own perception of a situation. So it is in L’Amant anonyme. Léontine, a wealthy widow, now aged 25, has vowed not to remarry in order to honour her husband’s memory. Nevertheless, she finds herself attracted to the young Vicomte de Valcourt.

Valcourt, however, is in love with Léontine and has secretly been wooing her with letters, gifts and parties. Because of her vow Valcourt had been afraid to reveal his identity for fear of being rejected. As the Anonymous Lover (l’Amant anonyme) his plan was to have her incline toward her admirer at which point he would reveal his identity. As the opera starts Valcourt finds that he can no longer wait to reveal himself as Léontine’s lover. Yet, he finds himself in the strange position of having to dispraise all the attentions on the Anonymous Lover to Léontine while increasing the Lover’s gifts to win her over. As in Marivaux, both lovers are caught in mental traps of their own making.

Marivaux was renowned for the subtlety of his language. The same cannot be said for Bologne’s librettist “Desfontaines”, who seems determined to push the story into the sentimental mode of comedy that succeeded Marivaux. Nevertheless, what wittiness the words lack in spoken dialogue and song is more than compensated by the wittiness of Bologne’s music which is unfailingly sprightly, toe-tapping and melodic. It’s no surprise that Bologne was a violinist since he gives the first violin several solos and the playful dialogues he writes between the first and second violins from the overture onwards embody the overall gallant style of the whole work.

Given that L’Amant anonyme was being presented by Opera in Concert, it was quite a surprise to find that there were no music stands on stage. Instead, the singers have all memorized their parts, furniture left and right provided the only necessary scenery, dance scenes were choreographed and there were lighting cues – all courtesy of Guillermo Silva-Marin listed the “Dramatic Advisor” in the programme. The opera, thus, did not feel that it was presented “in concert” at all so that I feel I was seeing as well as hearing Bologne’s work.

Alexander Cappellazzo sported a rich, well-rounded tenor that brought out all the ardour of the young Valcour. Dion Mazerolle’s sturdy baritone well suited Valcour’s tutor and confidant Ophémon. Holly Chaplin had several chances to show off her lyric coloratura soprano as Léontine, the singer to whom Bologne gives the most difficult arias and embellishments. All Chaplin needed was more varied volume and tone to capture the subtleties of Léontine’s predicament.

It is clear in Madame de Genlis’s play but not in the opera that Ophémon has deliberately timed the wedding of two of Léontine’s friends from the village, Colin and Jeannette, to help warm Léontine to idea of marriage just before Valcour declares himself. Joshua Clemenger displays a strong, clear tenor as Colin, and Ruth Acheampong shows off a lovely, velvety soprano as Jeannette. The duet between Clemenger and Acheampong is one of the many highlights of the work.

Léontine does have her own confidante, Dorothée, sympathetically played by Máiri Demings, but curiously Bologne does not have her sing. Some have speculated that this role was written for Madame de Montesson herself who was known as an actress. In some productions of L’Amante anonyme, Dorothée is given an aria from Bologne’s otherwise lost first opera Ernestine (1777). Demings, when not playing Dorothée, sang as part of the chorus, and it would have been good to have heard her on her own.

The orchestra of ten was seated on stage and Silva-Marin amusingly had had the action take place both in front and behind the ensemble. David Fallis, as one might expect, drew playing of lightness and verve from the group. Each of the choral interludes was a pleasure.

Given all the unfair comparisons of Bologne with Mozart, one had to remember that L’Amante anonyme is not a grand opera like Mozart’s Idomeneo which premiered a year later. Instead, L’Amante anonyme is written as a chamber opera for a small private theatre and an invited audience. There happen to be a lot of operas of this sort from the 17th and 18th centuries, among which L’Amante anonyme is one of the most charming. Unless an opera company also has access to a smaller venue, operas like Bologne’s, Cavalli’s, Cimarosa’s, Piccini’s, Haydn’s or early Mozart’s go unperformed. Once again Toronto opera-goers owe a great debt to VOICEBOX: Opera in Concert for producing both grand opera like Cherubini’s Médée in February this year as well as chamber operas like L’Amante anonyme, which is not merely historically important but a thoroughly delightful work one would like to hear more often.

Christopher Hoile

Illustrations: Title page of L’Amant anonime, Paris, 1780. Portrait of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, 1789, by Gabriel Banat after Mather Brown and William Ward, 1787.

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