Opéra Royal de Versailles’ revival of Grétry’s Richard Coeur de Lion is an unmissable and revelatory experience

16/10/2019

FranceFrance Grétry, Richard Coeur de Lion: Soloists, Ballet of Opéra Royal, Versailles; Chorus and Orchestra of Le Concert Spirituel / Hervé Niquet (conductor). Opéra Royal de Versailles, France, 10.10.2019. (CC)

Opéra Royal de Versailles’ Richard Coeur de Lion (c) Agathe Poupeney

Production:

Director – Marshall Pynkoski
Choreography – Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg
Scenery – Antoine Fontaine
Costumes – Camille Assaf
Lighting – Hervé Gary
Fight Scenes – Géraldine Moreau-Geoffrey

Cast:

Blondel – Rémy Mathieu
Richard – Reinaud Van Mechelen
Laurette – Melody Louledjian
Antonio, The Countess – Marie Perbost
Sir Williams – Geoffroy Buffière
Urbain, Florestan, Mathurin – Jean-Gabriel Saint-Martin
Guillot, Charles – François Pardailhé
Madame Mathurin – Cécile Achille
Sénéchal – Charles Barbier
Colette – Agathe Boudet
Béatrix – Virginie Lefèvre
Dogs – Lilly & Leica

This was the first performance of Grétry’s opera Richard, Coeur de Lion (1783) at the Opéra Royal de Versailles since 1789, and was mounted as part of the celebrations for the 250th anniversary of the Opéra Royal de Versailles. There are four performances in the run, of which this was the first: a recording of Richard is due to be released by the Château de Versailles label next year. Although the opera, designated as ‘opéra comique’ on the title page of the 1786 published Paris score (J. Frey) but also known as a ‘comédie mise en musique’, enjoyed success, it has very much fallen from the repertoire, as has Grétry’s music in general. In fact, early on, it travelled to the United Kingdom (1786) and the USA (Boston, 1797).

Liège-born André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry (1741-1813) travelled to Rome to study for four years; he wrote more than 60 opéras-comiques over a 35-year span. Lightness and freshness run through Richard Coeur de Lion, plus not a little spectacle; the music of Richard seems French through and through. Conductor Hervé Niquet sees it in a number of ways, but in conversation with me he highlighted the idea of it being like a Broadway musical. He is clear that Grétry is a genius who knows how to touch the audience through both noble and comic music; the opera requires singers who are actors – the idea was to find young singers who can do both, and on this evidence, Niquet very much succeeded. Some principals, in fact, have more text than song …

Sadly, Grétry has fallen out of fashion, and he has a reputation of being too light. Niquet conducted Andromaque (1780 with a text by Racine) in Montpelier, Germany and Versailles: there is a recording of this on the Glossa label. ‘A horrible, violent, terrible piece’, as Niquet so temptingly described it to me. I reviewed a DVD of Grétry’s Pierre le Grand (Peter the Great) for MusicWeb International back in June 2005 (review): sung in French, but with Russian dialogue. That whole enterprise had too many holes in it, sadly. Elsewhere in the Grétry canon, there was a 1973 recording of Zémire et Azor conducted by Edgar Doneux with – vitally – the great Mady Mesplé as Zémire. In fact, Mesplé seems to have made something of a speciality of Grétry: she stars in L’amant jaloux also, as Léonore, as well as Laurette in a 1977 Doneux-led recording of Richard Coeur de Lion with the Chamber Orchestra of Belgian Radio and Television, with Michel Trempont as Blondel and Charles Burles as Richard. That performance was released on three French EMI LPs coupled with her L’amant jaloux (a link at the end of this review takes you to Act I on YouTube); topically for Versailles, the CD version of the 1977 Doneux found Richard coupled with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Le Devin du village (Le Devin is in fact available on the Château de Versailles Spectacles series conducted by Sébastien d’Hérin, CV5004). And finally, one has to wonder what Grétry’s Guillaume Tell (1791) is like …

To have the opportunity to enjoy a Grétry opera in such opulent surroundings was not to be sniffed at. Richard, Coeur de Lion is set to a libretto by Michel-Jean Sedaine, based on a story by Jean-Baptiste de La Curne de Sainte-Palaye. The itinerant musician (trouvère) Blondel de Nesle is the saviour of his master, King Richard I of England (‘Richard the Lionheart’), who has been imprisoned in Linz, Austria. Disguising himself as a violin-playing blind man, Blondel is able to locate his master by playing a melody Richard will recognize (we hear that tune a lot, although thankfully not to the saturation point of, say, the duet in Bizet’s Pêcheurs de Perles). By capturing the prison governor, Blondel can hold on until troops come to rescue the pair. Little-known though it may be, Richard, Coeur de Lion’s influence radiates out in several directions. As an early ‘rescue’ opera we can see elements of Fidelio there (there’s even a character called Florestan – the prison warden – and we should remember that Beethoven wrote a set of eight variations for piano on ‘Une fièvre brûlante’ in 1795 (his WoO 72). Blondel’s aria, ‘Ô Richard, ô mon roi’ (‘O Richard, O my King’) found popularity among royalists during the French Revolution while Laurette’s aria, ‘Je crains de lui parler la nuit’ (‘I am afraid to talk to him at night’) is referenced in Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades.

The staging and choreography here was by the Founding Co-Artistic Directors of Opera Atelier, Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg at the invitation of Laurent Brunner, Artistic Director of Château de Versailles Spectacles and the Opéra Royal. Beautifully traditional in its depiction of scenery and imaginative in its use of space, the production was a delight. Singers made use of a strip of stage that is behind the orchestra and right in front of the orchestra (very close to where I was sitting, in fact) as well as the boxes to the sides of the stage. Nice to see a couple of courtly dogs on stage, Lilly and Leica (the only cast members I met at the after-party, as it goes).

Surrounded by his players, with violins behind him, conductor Hervé Niquet led an incendiary account of the Overture, fiery and alive. Momentum was the primary element here; when the ‘big tune’ came in there was little or no slowing to be had. Throughout, the orchestra was massively responsive not only to his direction but to the import of Grétry’s writing: an evocation of a storm in music brought forth awe-inspiring contributions from the timpani, while more pastoral sections were radiant.  The chorus, too, was enthusiastic, to say the least, their peasant dance after the Overture full of life.

The music is far from easy to perform: Grétry revels in asymmetrical phrase groupings to keep everyone on their toes. There is an element of ticking all the boxes of what would be expected in terms of airs, ensembles and duets, but Grétry does it all with his very individual voice; there is a glorious instance of comedic vocal counterpoint in the first act (not too long after Blondel’s big aria) that works supremely, especially when despatched with such aplomb as here.

Despite the opera’s title, it is actually Blondel who is the hero of Grétry’s piece. Rémy Mathieu was superb in this role, his ‘O Richard, O mon roi’ strong and virile, a proper statement of his devotion to his King. Strong and confident throughout, this was a magnificent assumption.

Laurette is the daughter of the Welshman, Sir Williams (and the girl Don Florestan would woo). She has a charming aria mentioned above, ‘Je crains de lui parler la nuit’, sung by the fabulous Melody Louledjian. When Laurette and Blondel join in duet in ‘Un bandeau couvre les yeux du Dieu qui rend l’amour’, the result is pure magic. Grétry provides a staccato line on flute initially, and Blondel enters singing the same line; later, Blondel and Laurette alternate their lines a quaver (and an octave) apart, staccato, against pizzicato strings. Performed with such care as this, the result could hardly be more captivating. I see Louledjian is due to sing the roles of Der Diktator and Bibukopf in Der Kaiser von Atlantis for Opera Tenerife in December: she clearly is not afraid to explore the repertoire.

The titular character somewhat surprisingly does not appear until the second act. Reinauld Van Mechelen was a splendid King Richard, noble and touching in his aria ‘Si l’univers entire m’oublie’. As Sir Williams, Geoffroy Buffière has commanding stage presence and vocal strength, while Jan-Gabriel Saint-Martin owned the role of Florestan. The role of Antonio, who is a local boy who guides Blondel, is sung by a soprano, here the clear-toned Marie Perbost.

The general level of acting ability was significantly above what one has come to expect from the operatic stage. Dance is integral to Richard, be it quadrille, gigue, contredanse or waltz (all of which occur). The Ballet of the Opéra Royale is superb throughout. Just one tiny point: from the angle at the front of the stalls, to have dancing behind a line of principals singing meant one had to crane one’s neck to see properly what was going on – perhaps there were better sightlines in the theatre.

That said, the whole experience is unmissable and, importantly, revelatory. One has to wonder if Grétry’s time has finally come?

Colin Clarke

Links:  Libretto for Richard, Coeur de Lion click here / Act I, cond. Doneux, with Mesplé on YouTube

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