Wednesday 23 December 2020

Awaiting re-discovery: Grétry Richard Coeur-de-lion returning to Versailles for the first time since 1789 proves to be a work of charm and imagination

Grétry Richard Coeur-de-lion; Rémy Mathieu, Enguerrand de Hys, Melody Louledjian, Reinoud Van Mechelen, Marie Perbost, Le Concert Spirituel, Hervé Niquet, Marshall Pynkoski; Chateau de Versailles

Grétry Richard Coeur-de-lion; Rémy Mathieu, Enguerrand de Hys, Melody Louledjian, Reinoud Van Mechelen, Marie Perbost, Le Concert Spirituel, Hervé Niquet, Marshall Pynkoski; Chateau de Versailles

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 23 December 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Grétry's opera comique returns to Versailles after 250 years and proves to combine charm and imagination

What do George Frideric Handel,  André Grétry, Gioacchino Rossini, Sir Arthur Sullivan and Stephen Oliver have in common?
Richard the Lionheart is perhaps not the first character you would associate with this diverse bunch of composers, but all wrote musical theatre works about King Richard I of England, though in Sullivan's Ivanhoe Richard is not the protagonist and Rossini's Ivanhoé is somewhat special pleading as the work is a pasticcio written with his consent but not participation.

Handel's Riccardo I was his first opera to be premiered after he became a naturalised British citizen and treats a fictional episode on Cyprus that could be the plot of virtually any opera seria. Grétry and Stephen Oliver both treat, in very different ways, the same episode, that of the minstrel Blondel rescuing his master by singing a familiar song outside Richard's prison. And there is another commonality, both are music theatre works. Oliver's music Blondel (with words by Tim Rice) premiered in London in 1983, whilst Grétry's opéra comique premiered in Paris in 1784.

Grétry's Richard Coeur-de-lion - Rémy Mathieu - l'Opéra Royal de Versailles 2019 (Photo Agathe Poupeney)
Grétry's Richard Coeur-de-lion - Rémy Mathieu - l'Opéra Royal de Versailles 2019
(Photo Agathe Poupeney)

Unsuccessful at first Grétry's Richard Coeur-de-lion would go on to be popular with King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. It travelled quickly, reaching London in 1786 and the USA in 1797, and would be very popular in Paris during the 19th century, only falling out of favour during revolutionary periods.

Grétry's operas have not yet made a big impression in Britain, though Sir Thomas Beecham was mightily fond of the composer and the last opera he conducted in Britain was a staged version of Grétry's Zémire et Azor at the Theatre Royal in Bath. If you think that we don't see all that much Lully or Rameau in the UK, try searching through the archives for performances of Grétry's operas.

Richard Coeur-de-lion is regarded as Grétry's masterpiece and in 2019 the opera returned to the opera house in the Palace of Versailles for the first time since 1789, when it was performed just before the King and Queen left the palace for ever.

On this set on the Chateau de Versailles' own label, we have both an audio and visual record of that production with a CD and a DVD. Hervé Niquet conducts Le Concert Spirituel, Marshall Pynkoski directs, with Rémy Mathieu and Enguerrand de Hys as Blondel, Melody Louledjian as Laurette, Reinoud Van Mechelen as Richard, Marie Perbost as Antonio and La Comtesse and Geoffroy Buffiere as Williams. The opera is not long, even though it is in three acts. The CD, with some spoken dialogue, lasts 73:18 whilst the DVD lasts 87:00. The one is not a copy of another as there is a different singer as Blondel in each.

In three acts, the work deal with Blondel's discovery of King Richard's imprisonment (via a shared song) and his eventual release of his master. There are the usual opera comique tropes with comic moments, but Michel-Jean Sedaine's libretto deftly sets up a comic subplot (the prison governor, Florestan, trying to seduce a local girl Laurette but being discovered by her father Williams), and then uses this in Act Three as a means of distracting Florestan so that King Richard can be rescued.

Grétry's Richard Coeur-de-lion - l'Opéra Royal de Versailles 2019 (Photo Agathe Poupeney)
Grétry's Richard Coeur-de-lion - l'Opéra Royal de Versailles 2019 (Photo Agathe Poupeney)

The result is a deftly entertaining mixture of the comic and the serious, and though the work disappeared from modern stages it cast a long shadow. Whilst Sedaine's plot can be linked to the Enlightenment genre which included Mozart's Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail (1781), Grétry's treatment of a serious historical subject and the rescue nature of the plot would be influential in the development of Opéra Comique. Whilst Grétry himself was not prolific during the revolution and after, he was too much associated with Queen Marie Antoinette, his combination of music, spoken text and a serious subject would influence composers such as  Méhul and Cherubini, and provide a real link between opera comique and grand opera.

Cherubini would write his own rescue opera, Lodoiska in 1791. It was highly popular and there was a production in Vienna in 1805 which helped inspired Beethoven to write his rescue opera. For his libretto, Beethoven turned to one by Jean Nicolas Bouilly which had originally been written in 1798 as Léonore; ou, L'amour conjugal with music by Pierre Gaveaux who had sung the lead tenor role in the  premiere of Cherubini's Lodoiska.

And that's not all, Grétry's use of a historical plot, rather than gods and goddesses, is a real pre-cursor of the changes that would happen to French opera in the early 19th century, and Grétry went on to do operas on Peter the Great, and William Tell (intrigued, I am!). And even more intriguingly, if you summarise the plot of Richard Coeur-de-lion, with its two contrasting heroines, elements of comedy, grand ball and the way public and private lives rub against each other, and you could almost be pointing to one of Scribe's librettos for classic early 19th century French Grand Opera.

The opera is at some pains not to let the character of Blondel upstage his master, and the result is rather a curiosity of construction. Act One features solos for three characters, Antonio (the young man showing Blondel round and here played by Marie Perbost who also plays Richard's love interest), Blondel and Laurette (the young woman involve in the decoy plot). Act Two features a solo for Richard and a duet between Richard and Blondel, featuring the melody that the two know and share. Act Three, which is where the action plot happens, has no important solos at all it is mainly ensemble. To a significant extent this is a real opéra comique, the dialogue is important and drives the plot in the way that the music does not.

The opera is given in its final form, and there were two previous versions including a four act intermediate version that makes you wonder whether these might have more material worth exhuming.

The stage production is by Marshall Pynkoski (director) and Jeannette Lajenuess Zingg (choreographer), co-founders of Opera Atelier in Toronto, a group which has done much to revivify opera of this period. They sensibly opt for a period production, setting the work during the era of its creation and using painted flats as sets. 

Marie Prebost makes a pertly charming Antonio completely with some delightful couplets. Unfortunately, in her role as Richard's love interest, the Countess, Prebost doesn't get a solo. Blondel's act one solo, 'O Richard, O mon Roi' is very of its period, it couldn't but be late 18th century French yet Grétry's approach is completely serious, he firmly establishes that the work is about more than just comic business. On the Cd, Enguerrand de Hys makes a finely firm Blondel, darkly burnished tone and a vibrant line.

It is Laurette (Melody Louledjian) who gets what is nowadays the opera's best known number, 'Je crains de lui parler la', but that is because this is the Grétry air which the old Countess sings in Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades! Here Louledjian is a complete delight in the number, fragile yet stylish.

It is perhaps, fatally easy to write Grétry off, the opera has a certain element of box ticking in terms of having all the elements of an opéra comique, but Grétry's music is always interesting and never feels hackneyed perhaps due to his fondness of uneven phrase lengths. And the way he uses the work's ensemble numbers is interesting, so that the comic quartet in Act One starts with a duet and then develops into a quartet, whilst Act one does not end just with a lavish ensemble number. Instead, we a complex little scene, in which Blondel (in disguise) plays a melody which the countess recognises allowing them both to realise they are there for the same purpose, to look for Richard, leads into Blondel's lively song with chorus which ends the act, but even here the text with its ironic references to the crusades, is relevant to the plot, and Grétry's orchestral interludes help develop the drama (as well as providing some excuse for dancing). This is an opera which is very well-thought-out.

With Act Two we reach the crux of the drama. We are finally introduced to Richard (Reinoud Van Mechelen), and Van Mechelen treats us to a finely heroic aria, though the subsquent duet with Blondel (on the other side of the ramparts) is believably short rather than large-scale music drama.

In the work's ensemble numbers in Acts Two and Three we can perhaps hear debts to Mozart in Grétry's writing. In fact, I have no idea how well Mozart's operas were known in France in 1784, when the opera was first performed (Die Entfuhrung did not reach Paris till 1801), but listen to the mixture of comic and serious in the ensembles and you can't but help think of Die Entfuhrung.

Hervé Niquet and his forces perform the music with real affection and style, as well as the requisite drama. The work can have no better send off.

About Marshall Pynkoski's stage production, I find myself rather more conflicted. Antoine Fontaine's sets are handsome, in a sort of period Swan Lake sort of way, and Pynkoski does use a fore-stage in front of the orchestra to bring his soloists forward. But the actual staging itself feels rather period, say 1970s. Pynkoski seems to think that keeping his characters moving is essential, and the result comes over as rather stagey and too busy. Remy Mathieu makes a musically appealing Blondel, though forced to wave and signal far too much and the other characters follow. The comedy in Act One feels over-done. I am afraid that I far preferred listening to the CD.

The box in which the CD and DVDs come is quite lavish, with photographs of the stage production, articles by Hervé Niquet, Georges Sion and Laurent Brunner. There is a short synopsis and a complete libretto in French, German and English. But, in a sense, the booklet begins in media res, assuming some sort of familiarity with the opera, its libretto and its significance in French history (the famous air 'O Richard, O my King' was sung by the Royal bodyguards at a banquet given by King Louis XVI which was an immediate precursor of revolution). Pages four and five of the booklet list the soloists with their roles and photographs, without explaining who the characters are. The synopsis is so abbreviated, that you have to either read the full libretto or go to Google to find out the details of who everyone is.

It is difficult to imagine Richard Coeur-de-lion in a modern production which mines the work's contemporary relevance, the work seems a little too in period for that. And of course, Blondel's obsession with his master has an homoerotic aspect (entirely ignored by Pynkoski) which would be more apparent in a modern setting. But perhaps, as it becomes better known opera companies will have the courage to explore. However, the work's 16 named characters (here played by 12 singers) might put companies off.

Grétry's Richard Coeur-de-lion - l'Opéra Royal de Versailles 2019 (Photo Agathe Poupeney)
Grétry's Richard Coeur-de-lion - l'Opéra Royal de Versailles 2019 (Photo Agathe Poupeney)

What the opera does have is charm, Grétry's music has that in spades along with a surprising amount of imagination. It is difficult to understand why his music has so fallen out of circulation, but this new set should help people realise that there is rather more to his operas than elegant plots and highly perfumed late 18th century music.

André-Ernest-Modest Grétry (1741-1813) - Richard Coeur de lion (1784/1785)
Blondel - Enguerrand de Hys/Rémy Mathieu
Laurette - Melody Louledjian
Richard - Reinoud Van Mechelen
Antonio, La Comtesse - Marie Perbost
Williams - Geoffroy Buffiere
Urbain, Florestan, Mathurin - Jean-Gabriel Saint-Martin
Madame Mathurin - Cécile Achille
Guillot, Charles - Francois Pardailhé
Colette - Agathe Boudet
Sénéchal - Charles Barbier
Béatrix - Virginie Lefebvre
Un Paysan - Francois Joron
Le Concert Spirtuel
Le Ballet de l'Opéra Royal
Hervé Nique (conductor)
Marshall Pynkoski (director)
Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg (choreographer)
Recorded and filmed in October 2019 at l'Opéra Royal de Versailles
Chateau de Versailles Spectacles CV2028 1CD+1DVD [1:03:18, 1:27:00]

Available from Amazon.

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