Rarity and variety are Wexford watchwords. From the ivory designs and rip-snorting passions of Mascagni’s Guglielmo Ratcliff we moved on to the vivid colours and effervescent joy of Ferdinand Hérold’s Le Pré aux clercs. Hérold is now better known for his Zampa overture or the ballet La Fille mal gardée, but Le Pré aux clercs (The Clerks’ Meadow) was hugely successful in its day. From its 1840 première, when it inaugurated the new Salle Favart, it notched up its 1600th performance at Paris’ Opéra Comique in 1949.

Tomislav Lavoie (Girot) and Magali Simard-Galdès (Nicette) © Clive Barda
Tomislav Lavoie (Girot) and Magali Simard-Galdès (Nicette)
© Clive Barda

It was at the Opéra Comique that this new production originated last March, a co-production with Wexford and Palazzetto Bru Zane, a Venetian organisation promoting the rediscovery of France’s musical heritage. There could easily have been an air of ‘heritage’ about the production: a traditional staging of romantic, political and religious intrigues set at the Palais du Louvre and the grounds of the ‘Pré aux clercs’ inn ten years after the 1572 St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Éric Ruf’s production, revived here by Laurent Delvert, contains no gimmicks, no ‘concept’, just a faithful retelling of the story, but done with such colour and joie de vivre that it came alive.

The plot is a bit like Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots but with laughs. Henry III’s sister, Marguerite de Valois (who appears in both operas), has been married off to the King of Navarre for political reasons. During Hérold’s opera, she is being held as a hostage of peace at the Louvre, accompanied by young Countess Isabelle. Navarraise envoy Baron de Mergy, in love with Isabelle, turns up and complications arise, mostly revolving around the dastardly Comte de Comminge, who rather fancies Isabelle himself and spends much of his time fighting duels. Lighter, comic elements surround Nicette (who is, conveniently, Marguerite’s god-daughter) and her wedding to Girot, host at the Pré aux clercs inn. Being essentially a comedy, true love wins the day, the opera ending with Isabelle and Mergy reunited after the latter has dispatched Comminge in a duel.

Nico Darmanin (Mergy), Marie-Ève Munger (Isabelle), Marie Lenormand (Marguerite) © Clive Barda
Nico Darmanin (Mergy), Marie-Ève Munger (Isabelle), Marie Lenormand (Marguerite)
© Clive Barda

Hérold’s music is relentlessly charming, but as one who has a sweet tooth, I found it immensely enjoyable. The orchestra, under Jean-Luc Tingaud, entered fully into the spirit right from the infectiously buoyant overture. Act II begins with a virtuoso concertante prelude for violin, with leader Fionnuala Hunt fully deserving her curtain call. The best arias are those for Isabelle and Nicette. Marie-Ève Munger, who also sang in this production’s Paris run, impressed as Isabelle. In her Act II aria “Jour de mon enfance”, she demonstrated sparkling coloratura and exquisite control over her diminuendos. Canadian soprano Magali Simard-Galdès, making her European debut, was a delightful Nicette, who – despite being peripheral to the plot – earns a couple of charming arias, including the folk-like “À la fleur du bel âge” with which she serenades guests at her wedding. Simard-Galdès made Nicette bubble with enthusiasm. Marguerite de Valois gets less of a starring role here, more a participant in duets and trios, but mezzo Marie Lenormand carried it off with great style.

What was a real joy was hearing French sung and, this being opéra comique, spoken by native French speakers. Acres of dialogue came thick and fast, the tangled plot foxing many of us desperately following the surtitles, which themselves struggled to keep up on occasion. Tomislav Lavoie’s Girot and Eric Huchet’s Cantarelli (a buffo Italian director of festivities) were especially adept at delivering humorous dialogue. Nico Darmanin’s tenor was a little hard and relentless at times as Mergy. His aria “Ô ma tendre amie” could have done with less attack. Dominique Côté got little to sing as Comminge, but ploughed through the role with pantomime villain swagger.

Eric Huchet (Cantarelli) and Dominique Côté (Comte de Comminges) © Clive Barda
Eric Huchet (Cantarelli) and Dominique Côté (Comte de Comminges)
© Clive Barda

Ruf’s simple set is populated by a quartet of trees that glide apart for the scene outside the Louvre. Renato Bianchi traditional costumes are bright and beautiful to look at. I’m not convinced Hérold’s opera is a forgotten masterpiece, but you can see how it scored with Parisian audiences for sheer entertainment value and this vivacious production does it credit.