As a long term admirer of Grétry’s delightful (if not greatly depthful) music, I was delighted at the opportunity to see an actual production of one of his rarely performed operas, I think the first in Australia. Originally from Liège (b.1741) and moving to Paris in 1767, André Grétry wrote mostly comic operas which were immensely popular in their time, so much so that he was appointed as Marie Antoinette’s musical director at Versailles. He was also a composing version of the Vicar of Bray, continuing his popularity through the Revolution and managing to be also a chum of Napoleon. Musically, it can be seen that he flourished in the post-Baroque, early Classical period, overlapping with, but outliving, Mozart.
The work chosen by Pinchgut is L’Amant jaloux which premiered in 1778, first in Versailles, then in Paris later that year, and was continuously performed there well beyond the composer’s death in 1813. Its plot is no sillier than that of most comic operas, and is not even particularly complex. Spanish grandee Don Lopez’s daughter Léonore is in love with the passionate but excessively jealous Don Alonze. Her bestie Isabelle has fallen in love with the French soldier Florival, who doesn’t know much about her, and is led to believe her name is Léonore; naturally Don Alonze assumes his own beloved has another admirer. There is a perky maid, Jacinte, providing commentary and assistance to the girls. The happy ending is produced by not only rectifying Florival’s mistake, but also by Don Alonze’s sudden providential inheritance, all of which clears the way for the appropriate weddings. It has been noticed that there are several parallels with Mozart’s major operas, the lively maid recalling Despina in Così fan tutte, Florival’s mandolin-accompanied serenade bringing to mind Don Giovanni, and several situations and indeed passages of music strongly reminiscent of Le nozze di Figaro. L’Amant jaloux however was composed several years before all these operas, and if any influence is to be imputed, it would have to be that of Grétry on Mozart.
Something novel in the Pinchgut production was the performance of two charming entr’actes to facilitate scene changes. The first was a movement from a mandolin concerto of Hummel played by Stephen Lalor, that instrument apparently something of a favourite of Grétry. The other was by that composer himself, a flute concerto played with feeling and great delicacy by Melissa Farrow; her baroque flute did however sound a little subdued against the classical orchestra. With respect to the main score, Grétry introduced a spectacular coloratura aria for his original leading lady (Marie-Jeanne Trial), and the Pinchgut team threw in a balancing ariette for the leading man from another Grétry opera. The singing was in French, with English spoken dialogue.
Pinchgut has applied its customarily excellent musical standards to the work, and its now good quality production values, still however subject to the dramatic limitations of the City Recital Hall’s lack of proscenium, but which is compensated for by excellent acoustics. The set (David Fleischer) was beguilingly economic, with skewed angled panelled walls forming a backdrop, and simple props such as an 18th century chair in the angle, a sofa and a small table against the long wall. Openings in the wall provided entrances and exits for the players, as well as cupboards for stuffing props, and sometimes people, in. This simple arrangement was easily changed to a bedroom, and a garden setting, as appropriate. Costumes (Christie Milton) were of the luxurious 18th century variety, although the very short panniered skirts of the leading ladies – only to the knee – seemed anachronistic and not all that flattering.
Erin Helyard led the usual Orchestra of the Antipodes in a disciplined and spirited rendition of Grétry’s light but elegant and graceful score on historical classical period instruments, with particularly pleasing contributions from the oboes (Amy Power and Owen Watkins). Director Chas Rader-Shieber went for a somewhat broad comic tone, perhaps somewhat more slapstick than what would have been seen in Paris, but he manoeuvred the cast around the stage in nifty fashion. The production made the most of the ensemble aspect of the work, with its many duets, trios and quartets, and the cast worked together beautifully in terms of ensemble singing, dramatic interaction and comic reaction. The only slightly distracting aspect for some was the variety of accents in the spoken dialogue, Australian in varying degrees of broadness and English.
Celeste Lazarenko was in top class form as the heroine Léonore, her first aria being the celebrated “Je romps la chaîne”, to which she did full justice, with excellent accurate coloratura with thrilling high notes, but while maintaining the appropriate feisty and comic tone. Curiously this is her only aria as such, and indeed everyone only gets one except the maid, who, for some reason, gets two. English tenor Ed Lyon as Don Alonze has a good firm ringing voice, but was less compelling in the aria “Du moment qu’on aime”, interpolated from Zémire et Azor, but impressed with his acting. Young mezzo-soprano Alexandra Oomens (Isabelle) was a little ordinary at first, but made an impression in her ariette “O douce nuite” with a warm steady voice with a sweet upper range. Jacinte, the maid, was sung by US based Australian soprano Jessica Aszodi, who was a little squally in her first, opening, aria but stronger in the second, with a somewhat metallic voice rather in the Slavic style. Tenor Andrew Goodwin as the French lover Florival dealt very nicely with his romantic serenade, “Tandis que tout sommeille”, one of Grétry’s better known items. Don Lopez might be seen as the glue holding it altogether, and the role was well-performed by David Greco in both singing, speaking and acting.
This is one of Pinchgut’s best explorations yet of opera obscura, and, while it is probably too much to hope for further Australian Grétry performances in the near future, at least he has now been presented to a discerning Australian audience.