The Haymarket Opera Company premiere in the Midwest The anonymous lover (The anonymous lover) by Joseph Bologna (Knight of St. George) Friday night at DePaul University’s Holtschneider Performance Center was a happy affair, in many ways.
This lively, period-perfect show continues the Chicago-based ensemble’s return to fully staged performances this season, which opened with Stradella’s oratorio. The Susanna in March.
These weekend performances, however, feature HOC audiences at Jarvis Opera Hall. Seating 160, it’s a perfect gem of a theatre, with good sight lines, clear acoustics and inviting intimacy perfectly suited to the Gallic romantic comedy Bologna of the Age of Enlightenment.
What a surprise also to discover the romantic Bologna confection of 1790, a light but quite charming piece which is the only surviving opera by the biracial composer of Franco-Senegalese lineage (1745-99). Formerly sadly labeled “The Black Mozart”, the composer has recently been the subject of a veritable boom in performance and recording in Bologna.
A stage work that languished in near obscurity for some 230 years has resurfaced as if it had just been struck. And there couldn’t be a more fitting set to deliver Chicago’s professional premiere than Haymarket. Since its first season in 2011, the company has enthralled local listeners with its excursions into a mostly obscure baroque and classical repertoire, crafted with meticulous attention to historically informed performance style, period stage mannerisms and costuming. and finely detailed decorations.
Under the faithful hands of Artistic Director Craig Trompeter and Director Sarah Edgar, the show was filled with lavish period costumes by Stephanie Cluggish, lengthy ballet sequences choreographed by Edgar, and an elegant hand-painted set. designed by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, subtly illuminated by designer Brian Schneider.
Looks and sounds reminiscent of the late 18se century in France, when aristocrats in powdered wigs and silk adornments presented such a fare for the delight of their peers at the Sun King’s country palace. Never mind that the rumblings of the Revolution can already be heard beyond the manicured gardens of Versailles.
That said, HOCs Anonymous lover carried a contemporary freshness and energy born from the caring care of a strong ensemble of period instrumentalists, singers and dancers. The six singers were rewarded for memorizing long portions of spoken and sung dialogue which they delivered with remarkable Gaulish diction – and without a prompter in sight.
The refined gallant know-how of his music for The anonymous lover amply justifies the modern revival. Parts of the score sound like Mozart, parts like French contemporaries like Gretry. Bologna may not have been his equal as a musical genius, but his gift for simple, straightforward lyricism shines through in the somewhat formulaic narrative conventions of his only extant opera.
The ritualized romantic plots of The Anonymous Lover, its libretto, adapted from a popular French play by Stéphanie-Félicité de Genlis, no doubt meant something very different to the public of its day than to ours.
But the fulfillment of unrequited love is a theme that belongs as much to the present as to the past – hence the complexity love affair between the main characters, Léontine and Valcour, can and does touch the heart, given the kind of tender loving care he received from the lead singers of HOC’s worthy staging: soprano Nicole Cabell (cast of luxury indeed) as the young widow whose failed marriage makes her resistant to falling in love a second time; and tenor Geoffrey Agpalo as the titular swain who woos her from afar as he waits for his broken heart to heal. (It turns out that Valcour and Leontine’s ghost suitor are one and the same.)
Léontine is the only figure in opera who has developed with real depth in words and music. Cabell seized every opportunity with her radiant singing and touching characterization to take the audience through their conflicted emotional states, from indifference and confusion to restlessness and rapt abandon. Her idiomatic vocalism gave great pleasure throughout. She made a real hit in the ornate aria in the heroine’s second act in which Leontine admits her defenses are crumbling despite her vows to resist the power of love. It was gratifying to have this delightful singer back on a local stage after her many distinguished seasons with Lyric Opera.
Agpalo’s lyricism was also full-bodied and polished, his attention to word meanings relatively close. Added to this was a seductive French nasality to the timbre that suited Valcour’s fiery vocal lines quite well. The lyrical tenor has good stage instincts and he held his own against Cabell in the romantic chemistry department.
Rounding out a beautiful, well-balanced ensemble are Haymarket regulars Nathalie Colas as Léontine’s amused confidante Dorothée; David Govertsen as Ophemon, Valcour’s Don Alfonso-looking buddy; and Erica Schuller and Michael St. Peter as secondary lovers, Jeannette and Colin. A few of them might have resisted the urge to push their voices to the climaxes – unnecessary, given the warm and intimate acoustics.
The performances were based on a new interpretive score prepared for Haymarket by Gregg Sewell and based on surviving historical sources; according to Trompeter, it took hundreds of hours of editing and educated guesswork to produce a usable performing version. A similar endeavor has resulted in a new translation of chattering French dialogue and sung text by Mary Mackay and Edward Wheatley, translated into English surtitles by Alessandra Visconti, all with these performances in mind.
The trumpeter presided over a 17-piece orchestra on period instruments, playing at the lowest pitch of the late 18e-century France; their rhythmic articulation was crisp, their playing overall clear and elegant. The pair of valveless horns suffered a few mishaps but nothing that couldn’t be fixed before sessions begin on Monday for the opera’s planned first recording, for Chicago’s Cedille label. Fluid musical continuity kept the pit in sync with the stage. The elaborate ballet sequences found four dancers gliding gracefully through Edgar’s carefully considered and well-integrated choreography.
Haymarket Opera’s production of The anonymous lover will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Jarvis Opera Hall, Holtschneider Performance Center, De Paul University. [email protected]
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