Voicebox Opera in Concert presented the last performance of their season series dedicated to Mozart and the operas of his time, L’Amant anonyme by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges aka Joseph Boulogne, sometimes called “The Black Mozart”. His life story would make a great opera: but that’s a tale for another time.
The story of this opera reminds me of old films such as Shop Around the Corner or You’ve Got Mail, both romances involving concealed identities. This time we’re watching Valcour anonymously send gifts and notes to Léontine, a wealthy widow whom Valcour loves in secret. Valcour is aided by Léontine’s tutor Ophemon as well as Colin and Jeannette, two friends of hers.
The music is stronger than I expected for an opera that premiered in 1780, and perhaps deserves to be produced more often.
I want to call attention to the amount of work going into the production. For starters, it wasn’t precisely opera in concert, not when everyone memorized their parts and moved about the stage in character. We might usually expect singers at music stands, but this went far beyond that.
Consider too that usually singers prepare for roles they will sing again elsewhere, which this cast won’t likely do ever again, not when the opera is so infrequently performed. When you watch a production of boheme or Nozze di Figaro, you’re usually seeing singers performing music they learned long before, perhaps as students while they were first studying voice. Not so with a newly discovered work, however.
I suspect the weaknesses in the execution arise from a story that is somewhat dated, and ambiguous without an available performing history to observe. But when something has never been done before and includes a perplexing plot point, one has to boldly take the plunge even if it doesn’t seem to make sense in 2023. And that too is why it’s vitally important to see such works presented for us, to at least get some sense of why these works are rarely done. But maybe if we saw the piece more often we’d understand the story better, and solve any problem posed by the score.
One of the other big challenges with unfamiliar repertoire is making sense of the music. Every score is a kind of a puzzle to be solved rightly or wrongly. When a piece hasn’t been produced it is especially mysterious, posing questions to the producer as to what sort of voices should be cast. If the parts are too tough, no singer will want to undertake them, and that opera may languish in obscurity no matter how beautiful its music.
Alexander Cappellazzo as Valcour the anonymous lover (aka the title role) sang brilliantly in a role that lies very high at times. There’s a passage in the first scene that contains an obscene number of high notes, that he executed bravely and accurately, managing to keep things light and comical rather than scary, as they would have been for those of us who can’t sing that high. He kept smiling!
I was impressed with the way Holly Chaplin sang Léontine, the object of Valcour’s affections & mystery gifts. It’s quite different from The Queen of the Night, which I heard her sing in Richmond Hill recently. Léontine also has coloratura and a few high notes, but also dramatic legato passages. It’s a daunting role that sometimes lies low, but Holly was up to it.
Dion Mazerolle was a spectacular Ophémon, particularly in the music with Léontine that opens the second act. Where Valcour is asked to be insincere and to counterfeit words, Ophémon sings with great conviction on his behalf.
…And then I was frankly astonished when, shortly later, we came to the resolution of the plot, hearing Valcour and Léontine sing such a weak scene together. While it works, it wasn’t persuasive as a big change of heart. I was disappointed at how this was composed, considering how excellent the music had been earlier. Thank goodness there was a happy chorus to follow. We all smiled in the end.
I must also acknowledge the work of Robert Cooper preparing the chorus and especially David Fallis leading a small orchestra that seemed to play in a style apt for the period (not excessive in their vibrato and very quick tempi), keeping all these singers together. It’s like magic considering that the soloists were mostly working behind David’s back without scores, although David seemed to have eyes in the back of his head. The singers sounded pretty close to flawless in their execution.
We won’t likely hear this opera again, but I do hope Voicebox – Opera in Concert find proper funding, in order to keep the historical investigations coming. They’re not just valuable, but enormously enjoyable.
Thanks for this timely and spot on review
Pingback: Surprising Chevalier | barczablog