Chevalier de Saint-Georges, born Joseph Bologne, was the Guadeloupe-born son of a French planter and his slave. He achieved an unlikely renown in the highest echelon late 18th-century French culture – unlikely, that is, for a person of mixed race (then known as a mulatto). A legendary fencer as well as a violinist, conductor, and composer, Saint-Georges wrote six opéras comiques, but only one survives. A new, severely stripped-down production L’Amant Anonyme (“The Anonymous Lover”) by the little OPERA theatre of ny at 59e59 is enough to make one mourn the loss of the others.
Some of Saint-Georges’ operas were criticized in their time for flimsy librettos, and it would be charitable even to call the storyline of L’Amant Anonyme weak. The protagonist, Valcour, secretly loves his friend Léontine, but won’t come forth as the author of the series of love letters she’s been receiving. Why? It’s unclear. Meanwhile Léontine insists to her lady-in-waiting that her heart is cold, unwelcoming of anyone’s love. Why? Your guess is as good as mine. Their dance of denial occupies most of the libretto. The new adaptation by director Philip Shneidman also shoehorns in segments of awkwardly recited narration about the life of the composer, providing only some intriguing hints of what was in fact an incredibly interesting life.
Hence, story-wise, the production careers between exasperating and confusing. Much more important, though, are the superlative voices and adept tiny chamber orchestra, which bring Saint-Georges’ music to crescendos of beauty. Tenor Everett Suttle was in fine, buttery voice as Valcour, alone and in duets with soprano Jennifer Moore’s lyric Léontine, who was a perfect balance of sweetness and strength, and with Jesse Malgieris’s sturdy, grand baritone as Ophémon. Anthony Webb’s exquisitely clear tenor as Colin contrasted with Suttle’s darker tones, and melded perfectly with soprano Marie Masters’s glorious, rich voice as a crowd-pleasing Jeannette. (A different cast of singers appears at alternate performances.)
The music itself is just plain delightful. While Saint-Georges may not have been another Mozart (though he probably knew him), he was an accomplished master of vocal interplay and counterpoint, brilliantly highlighted by these fine singers. From Valcour and Ophémon’s initial duet and Jeanette and Colin’s chanson of love to the wonderful final sequence of duo, trio, and finale, the music and the voices make the production’s dramaturgical weaknesses mere by-the-bys.
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