A rarely performed eighteenth-century opera: The Anonymous Lover by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges

United StatesUnited States Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, The Anonymous Lover: Soloists and Orchestra of LA Opera / James Conlon (conductor). Colburn School’s Zipper Hall, Los Angeles, streaming from 14.11.2020 – 29.11.2020. (JRo)

A scene from LA Opera’s The Anonymous Lover (c) Larry Ho

Libretto – Madame de Genlis, adapted by Desfontaines
Director – Bruce A. Lemon, Jr.
Sets and Projections – Hana S. Kim
Costumes – Misty Ayres
Lighting – Pablo Santiago
Dramaturge – Ariane Helou
Choreography – Andrea Beasom

Léontine – Tiffany Townsend
Valcour – Robert Stahley
Dorothée – Alaysha Fox
Ophémon – Michael J. Hawk
Jeannette – Gabriela Flores
Colin – Jacob Ingbar

The biography of the eighteenth-century composer Joseph Bologne, awarded the title Chevalier de Saint-Georges by Louis XV, reads much like those of his Enlightenment era contemporaries: Beaumarchais in France, Casanova in Italy and Jan Potocki in Poland. All were immensely talented; all were freemasons and adventurers as well as keen participants in the political and social life of their times. But unlike his European-born contemporaries, Saint-Georges was from Guadeloupe, the son of a wealthy French plantation owner and an enslaved Senegalese woman. His father, a minor aristocrat, recognized his son’s musical gifts and sent him to Paris at the age of eight to further his violin studies.

Beyond his talent on the violin, Saint-Georges was a composer, conductor, fencing champion, member of the king’s guard, professor and war hero. He commissioned and conducted the world premiere of Haydn’s six Paris Symphonies, and he wrote six operas (all lost save The Anonymous Lover), fourteen violin concerti, eight sinfonie concertante, two symphonies, concertos for clarinet and for bassoon and six string quartets, among other works. And he accomplished all this as an illegitimate son of mixed race living in eighteenth-century France.

Long overlooked because of his race, Saint-Georges’ oeuvre is now being reexamined thanks to many, including music director James Conlon and the LA Opera. Saint Georges’ only extant opera, The Anonymous Lover, is the inaugural offering of LAO’s ON NOW platform.

The libretto is based on the play L’amant anonyme by a popular French writer of the period, Madame de Genlis, and the plot is a slim, light-hearted romance, made memorable only in light of Saint-Georges’ music. Léontine, a young widow, is weary of love, having been scorned by her husband. Her close friend, Valcour, is her anonymous lover, afraid to declare his love. To reveal or not to reveal his identity takes up most of the plot. Dorothée (traditionally a non-singing role), acting as Léontine’s confidant, and Ophémon, acting as Valcour’s confidant, further the action, offering advice and contriving to help the couple. A peasant couple’s wedding, hosted by Léontine, is the centerpiece of the opera – their simple love exemplifying the ideal. Of course, all comes right in the end with general rejoicing.

If only Da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist, had been enlisted, the result would have been more elevated. Fortunately, Saint-Georges’ music has the beauty and depth to carry the opera, which is sung handsomely by six members of LAO’s Young Artist Program: Tiffany Townsend, Robert Stahley, Alaysha Fox, Michael J. Hawk, Gabriela Flores and Jacob Ingbar.

Despite the immense difficulty of staging an opera in the time of Covid and the relatively new format of home computer viewing, the production acquitted itself nicely and was a jaunty affair. Though the artistic intent was evident – playing with social distancing by using extreme lighting and color effects and superimposing and layering images – the production would have benefitted from a more cohesive vision.

It was the orchestra under Conlon (playing in a rehearsal hall outside the stage and piped into the singer’s ears) and the cast of eight (six singers and two dancers) who prevailed. The lyricism and poignancy of Saint Georges’ music was on display, conjuring Gluck and, to my ears, anticipating Rossini. In some instances, Saint-Georges’ music and Mozart’s share common ground. In fact, the two lived for a short time under the same roof in Paris, and speculation is that they exchanged ideas.

As Léontine, Townsend made use of her potent, glowing soprano, and tenor Stahley as Valcour sung with force and polish. Familiar to LAO audiences, Hawk sang Ophémon with his expressive baritone. Flores and Ingbar as the peasant couple were touching. Fox, with her warm soprano, was given a beautiful aria from Ernestine, the only existing aria from this lost Saint Georges work.

In the tradition of the opéra comique, singing is interspersed with dialogue. For the sake of accessibility, I understand the decision to switch from French song to English dialogue, but it proved somewhat jarring. Perhaps if the libretto was more sophisticated and the talented singers more experienced, their acting skills would have overcome this hurdle. With the exception of Hawk’s performance, the dialogue proved cumbersome.

Ballet is also part of the opéra comique, and the choreography of Andrea Beasom added charm to the production. Dancing with her husband, the two mirrored in movement the love of the peasant couple, Jeannette and Colin.

The Anonymous Lover is free and streams on LA Opera’s website. For opera lovers there are delights to be had; for those new to opera, here is an easily accessible and affordable way to experience the art form. High praise to LAO for the undertaking.

Jane Rosenberg

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