Opera Lafayette’s French Baroque Gems Enliven Spring on the Upper East Side

The company's smallish original-instrument orchestra began roughly but quickly found its footing under the experienced guidance of guest conductor Christophe Rousset.

A group of opera performers in colorful costumes performs on a pink-lit stage
Les Fêtes de Thalie. Jennifer Packard

For nearly three decades, Opera Lafayette has steadily been expanding America’s understanding of 17th- and 18th-century opera and more specifically, works of the French baroque. Founded during the 1995-96 season in Washington, D.C. by violinist-conductor Ryan Brown, the company has lately been performing in both D.C. and New York City, where it recently completed one of its strongest seasons with the modern premiere of Jean-Joseph Mouret’s delicious Les Fêtes ou le Triomphe de Thalie. 

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The company began with concerts of chamber music and one-act operas but soon moved on to concert performances of grander full-length rarities like Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie and Lully’s Acis et Galatée. Eventually, it began to record its offerings on the Naxos label beginning with Gluck’s Orphée ed Eurydice and Sacchini’s Oedipe à Colone, and the company found a special niche reviving and recording opéra-comiques, brief comic operas with spoken dialogue that began to flourish in the final decades of the 18th Century. Works from composers like Monsigny, Grétry and Philidor, once familiar only as titles in The Grove Dictionary of Opera, came alive in Opera Lafayette productions that mixed North American and European singers under Brown’s baton.

A man dressed like a sailor and a woman wearing a dress and apron sing on an opera stage
Patrick Kilbride and Jean-Bernard Cerin in Les Fêtes de Thalie. Jennifer Packard

The company began to expand its role in rediscovering forgotten primarily French works by surrounding its excavations with streaming informative talks leading up to performances and commissioning essays from scholars that appear in the glossy collectible programs published for each new season. The past three series have been dedicated to influential 18th-century women: Marie Antoinette, followed by two of Louis XIV’s most consequential mistresses, Madame De Pompadour and Madame de Maintenon—the latter being the inspiration for the 2023-24 season.

Long forgotten, Mouret won his slim slice of immortality in the 1970s when his brief Rondeau became the theme for PBS’s long-running Masterpiece Theatre.

Otherwise, his works are rarely performed or recorded, though that may change when the new Opera Lafayette edition of Les Fêtes de Thalie (its shortened title) by harpsichordist Korneel Bernolet becomes widely available. Working from versions of Thalie on which Mouret toiled from 1714 to 1720, Bernolet resurrected a delightful addition to the genre known as opéra-ballet. Arising in the late 17th Century as a lighter, more accessible counterpart to the longer, serious tragédie lyrique created by Jean-Baptiste Lully, an opéra-ballet usually consisted of a prologue followed by three or four discrete mini-operas called entrées that regularly featured lots of dancing.

André Campra composed several important early ones, including Le Carnival de Venise which the Boston Early Music Festival revived in 2017 and Les Fêtes Vénitiennes brought the previous year to the Brooklyn Academy of Music by the noted French group Les Arts Florissants. Fêtes shows up in the titles of many of these works: Rameau alone composed three, Les Fêtes d’Hébê, Les Fêtes de L’Hymen et de l’Amour (which Opera Lafayette performed in 2015 and released on DVD) and Les Fêtes de Polymnie. However, the best-known and most widely performed opéra-ballet would be Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes.

The three downright hilarious entrêes of Mouret’s Thalie (AKA the Greek muse of comedy) wittily chart three stages of womanhood: La Fille, La Femme and La Veuve Coquette or The Girl, The Wife and The Coquettish Widow. In Opera Lafayette’s economical production performed at Museo del Barrio, La Fille embraced its maritime setting where a young sailor outwits the amorous advances of his beloved’s mother (!) portrayed with just the right bawdy spirit by tenor Patrick Kilbride in drag. Next, the Widow, ecstatically happy to be released from the burdens of marriage, flirts with a pair of suitors she has no intention of accepting. Perhaps in a sly nod to the new film Challengers about a fraught romantic triangle, the two rejected men exited arm-in-arm. In the final entrêe, a wise wife exposes her philandering husband whose eye has landed on a masked woman who proves to be his own wife in disguise.

SEE ALSO: With Electrifying New Casts, the Met’s ‘Carmen’ and ‘Butterfly’ Are Worth a Second Look

Joseph de La Font’s amusing if slim plots function primarily to give Mouret many opportunities to adorn them with fancifully beguiling ariettes, duets and especially suites for dancing. Five choreographers—Julian Donahue, Julia Bengtsson, Anuradha Nehru, Pragnya Thamire and Caroline Copeland—gave their small troupe of dancers spirited and inventive steps for Mouret’s consistently engaging ballets which are full of irresistible earworms.

Opera Lafayette’s smallish original-instrument orchestra began roughly but quickly found its footing under the experienced guidance of guest conductor Christophe Rousset whose vast experience in this repertoire with his own group Les Talens Lyriques assured that Thalie was in the best of hands. Rousset’s unerring feel for Mouret’s music brought a suave vigor to the infectious dance movements, and his singers brought a stylish elegance to their often tart interchanges.

When I saw that Angel Azzara’s repertoire included dramatic soprano roles by Richard Strauss and Puccini, I feared that she would be miscast in delicate French baroque music. Instead, she revealed a richly insouciant command that delighted as Melpomène and Doris. A late replacement to the cast, Paulina Francisco sparkled as the capering Thalie, while Ariana Wehr’s bright soprano rang out sweetly in several saucy soubrette roles. Pascale Beaudin slyly evoked the Widow and the Wife’s worldly wiles.

Mouret gave the men less interesting roles, but Jonathan Woody strutted with fatuous conviction as Cléon, the Girl’s father. While tenor Jean-Bernard Cerin began weakly as the harassed sailor, he brought a winningly pompous hauteur to Dorante, the would-be adulterer brought to his senses by his wise wife. When not performing one of their roles, the singers banded together offstage for Mouret’s inventive choruses, though double the number of singers would have done those pieces greater justice.

A woman wearing a blue dress sings while an orchestra performs behind her
Paulina Francisco in Esther. Jennifer Packard

New York City hosted stellar performances of French baroque opera long before Les Arts Florissants began visiting and Opera Lafayette was founded. During the 1980s and early 90s Concert Royal, conducted by James Richman, brought local audiences many fine Rameau performances, several directed and choreographed by Catherine Turocy who returned to Opera Lafayette to neatly bring together all of Thalie’s singers and dancers in a joyously captivating evening.

Two nights later, six singers and a small instrumental ensemble gathered under Justin Taylor’s direction at St. Peter’s Church for “From Saint-Cyr to Cannons: Moreau and Handel’s Esther,” an intriguing program much closer to the serious character of Madame de Maintenon. It explored two musical responses to Racine’s sacred drama Esther. The playwright’s works often featured incidental music, and Jean-Baptiste Moreau’s composed his for the play’s 1689 premiere consisting of ten graceful instrumental and vocal selections.

Though lacking Charpentier’s genius, Moreau’s vocal writing similarly relishes the intertwining female voices accompanied by strings and recorders. Together, Francisco, Elisse Albian and Kristen Dubenion-Smith often achieved a spellbindingly seraphic blend enhanced by St. Peter’s warmly reverberant acoustic. Taylor, conducting from the harpsichord, drew exquisite playing from his band which also excelled in Handel’s more aggressive music; here, fourteen numbers were excerpted from the composer’s early English oratorio.

Francisco, an American singer and scholar who this season has also been touring the world in Purcell’s The Fairy Queen as a member of Le Jardin des Voix, Les Arts Florissants’s young artist group, sang Esther’s arias with a plangently crystalline soprano and partnered beautifully with Jesse Darden in the haunting duet “Who calls my parting soul from death.” While I imagined that Taylor’s six singers would stick to arias and duets, they combined with remarkable success for several of Handel’s complex choruses. Woody (who also excelled as the braggart Haman), Darden and Jacob Perry joined the ladies in the stirring “Forever Blessed” that concludes the oratorio.

While Opera Lafayette has mostly stuck to works from the 17th and 18th Centuries, a while back it ventured into the 19th for Felicien David’s Lalla Roukh. For its upcoming 30th season, Brown’s final one as artistic director, the group will again present a true rarity: the world premiere of Edmond Dédé’s 1887 Morgiane, the earliest known opera by a Black American.  

During the weekend following Opera Lafayette’s baroque festival, The Sebastians, the local period-instrument ensemble, offered a provocative all-instrumental follow-up entitled “The 24 Violins Cross the Alps” at the Brick Presbyterian Church. Les Vingt-Quatre Violons was the name of Lully’s top-notch orchestra and The Sebastians programmed a few of that composer’s compositions and placed them alongside several by Muffat and Corelli who although not French were much influenced by Lully.

The result was an entrancing eighty minutes of sumptuous music-making by the young orchestra of twenty-four violins, violas and cellos filling out the five-part string writing with an additional four instrumentalists providing continuo support, plus a percussionist whose contributions were the afternoon’s only sour notes. It was quite disconcerting to hear a drum and some species of triangle during the concert’s opening selection, the overture to Lully’s well-known Atys. Although the drum added considerable verve to dance movements from Lully’s Ballet du Palais d’Alcine, the triangle always sounded intrusive, even inappropriate, particularly during excerpts from Muffat’s superb Armonico tributo. 

Otherwise, the group’s vital musicians produced wonderfully varied and lush sounds that reached their apex in the ravishing trio of chaconnes that concluded the concert. Particularly impressive was the famous “Passagaglia Grave” from the fifth Armonico sonata in which a small group featuring Daniel Lee, Nicholas DiEugenio and Ezra Seltzer alternated in sections with the entire orchestra for a richly ecstatic end to a special week of newly rediscovered baroque delights.

Opera Lafayette’s French Baroque Gems Enliven Spring on the Upper East Side