Opera Lafayette has uncovered a fascinating work in their revival of Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny’s 1762 comic opera Le roi et le fermier (The King and the Farmer). The Washington, D.C.-based company is dedicated to “the French 18th-century opera repertoire and its precursors, influences, and artistic legacy,” and presented a single performance on tour in Lincoln Center’s Rose Theatre before taking it to Versailles next week.

Dominique Labelle and William Sharp © Louis Forget
Dominique Labelle and William Sharp
© Louis Forget

Monsigny was drawn to the nascent French comic opera, but Le roi et le fermier is more complex than a simple romp. The libretto by dramatist Sedaine is a sweet tale based on an English play. A pretty shepherdess named Jenny has been abducted in Sherwood Forest (yes, the Robin Hood one) by a dissolute aristocrat, her reputation ruined and dowry flock stolen. When the king gets lost in the forest, he discovers Jenny’s intended, Richard (the farmer of the title), hangs out for a while, and eventually sets things right. The opera’s simple and sympathetic characters are starkly different from the more poised and symbolic figures of earlier French opera, nor do they have anything like the stature of opera seria. They, along with Monsigny’s music, are thoroughly endearing. But their harmlessness hide a bit of an agenda. While the conclusion is that the king cannot help but be good and just, the very questioning of his goodness and the portrayal of irredeemably depraved lords pushed the envelope for its time. (The choice of a setting in England, then an enemy of France, was itself provocative.)

Compared with the more brilliant and rhythmically driven music of the early eighteenth century, Monsigny’s score is modest. It sounds like what it is: something in between Rameau and Gluck. But, like the plot, it’s thoroughly charming and has more going on than is initially apparent. The tunes are instantly memorable, and there is surprising variety in mood and color, from Jenny’s dramatic, serious recounting of her abduction to a complex septet when the abductor, king, and peasants finally all confront each other.

Opera Lafayette’s simple production uses period dress and some simple lighting on backdrops with minimal set pieces. Two actors serve as narrators (in French) for much of the exposition’s material in place of spoken dialogue or much recitative. While the exact purpose of this was not clear--perhaps the cast does not speak much French--the plot flowed clearly and smoothly without ever taking itself too seriously. The stylized direction used a variety of eighteenth-century gestures, adopted with more aplomb by some of the cast than others. The effect, while low-budget and a little clunky, felt right for the honest and direct nature of the drama.

Ryan Brown led the historically informed orchestra in an elegant if sometimes underpowered performance. The Act 1 finale storm let the orchestra stretch its wings, which it did to fine thundering and windy effect, and the gloriously raspy sound of eighteenth-century horns made the forest setting atmospheric. The vocal music didn’t offer a lot of opportunity for display for the singers, but they acquitted themselves well. Dominique Labelle as Jenny and Yulia Van Doren as Betsy were the standouts; Van Doren singing with limpid sweetness and Labelle showing a depth of color and legato that gave her performance surprising gravity. Baritone William Sharp was a likeable and blandly cleanly-sung Richard. Thomas Michael Allen sounded much stronger in the top of his range than the bottom, but had good style.

The group’s performances in Versailles next week will use the backdrops from a genuine eighteenth-century production of the work that featured no less than Marie-Antoinette as Jenny. One suspects the work’s subtle satire may have been toned down for the occasion.

****1