While many performing arts organizations have been reducing their schedules or even closing, Opera Lafayette, a Washington DC-based group dedicated primarily to 17th and 18th century opera, has proven remarkably prosperous.  The results of those ambitions were on display at the Rose Theater Thursday evening during one of the company’s frequent visits to New York City when it presented its intriguing, if exhausting program called The French Così, consisting of a nearly complete performance of a French translation of Mozart’s opera, followed by a shorter work containing some plot echoes, Les Femmes Vengées by François-André Danican Philidor.  

Founded in 1995 by violinist-turned-conductor Ryan Brown, Opera Lafayette has progressed from small programs to complete operas, from a single concert each season to two or three, from concert performances to fully staged ones, and from performing only in DC to adding regular season in NYC and to traveling to the Opéra Royal de Versailles where The French Così arrives next month. In addition to this impressive evolution, many of its operatic revivals have been recorded on the Naxos label.

One of Brown’s preoccupations has been early operas-comiques from the mid- to late-18th century, a rarely performed genre that is still mostly ignored, even in France. Although he hasn’t yet gotten around to works by Egidio Duni, the Naxos discography already includes André Grétry’s Le Magnifique, Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny’s Le Déserteur and Le Roi et le fermier (performed at the first Versailles visit in 2012),as well as Philidor’s Sancho Pança.

Other than Philidor’s trenchant adaptation of Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones, I have to admit that I haven’t cottoned to most of the operas-comiques I have listened to in the past. They have seemed musically shallow and relentlessly bouncy, although a few of Grétry’s works have struck me favorably, particularly fizzy recorded highlights from Le Jugement de Midas conducted by the late Gustav Leonhardt, now available on Ricercar as a companion to an excellent complete version of Grétry’s once wildly popular La Caravane du Caire led by Marc Minkowski.

Therefore, when I saw that this Opera Lafayette program was going to pair Mozart’s complex 1790 masterpiece with a Philidor “trifle” from fifteen years earlier, I was skeptical particularly when I noticed that Femmes would be following Così. Much to my surprise, the anticipated let-down did not occur; in fact, Philidor’s 90-minute one-act proved a delightful treat!

Thursday’s program notes were packed with arguments for the pairing of these works, yet I remain unconvinced, particularly after having endured the over-five-hour running time. Brown and director Nick Olcott conceived of the Philidor as a sequel to the Mozart, taking place 10 years later where Fleurdelise and Dorabelle are now married to Fernand and Guillaume and Delphine is married to the painter who traipsed around silently in Così as assistant metteur-en-scène to Don Alphonse who alone did not reappear in Femmes.

Michel-Jean Sedaine’s libretto for Femmes presents three couples of whom two of the husbands are aggressively smitten with the wife of the third, a Mme Riss (formerly Delphine). In despair about how to handle this delicate and troubling situation, she confides in M. Riss, and together they cook up a scheme in collusion with the two appalled wives to have their husbands overhear M. Riss attempting to seduce each wife in much the same manner they had each accosted Mme Riss. Of course, when the shoe is on the other foot, the husbands, ashamed, ask for forgiveness which is quickly granted, and all six celebrate in a much-extended vaudeville final, a feature of many comiques of the time where each character sings a solo strophe, followed by a group refrain—perhaps the most well-known example outside comiques is the conclusion of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia.

For all the hundreds of words of argument spilled in the program notes, I came away unconvinced that there’s really that close a connection between the works—they differ so markedly in tone and affect. Sure, there are some minor parallels in the Philidor to Così where trickery is used to bring clarity to the complexities of fallible human beings in relationships, but presenting the earlier work as the third act of the Mozart just didn’t convince. Perhaps if seen on successive evenings, the echoes might have proved illuminating, but positioned together the two works seemed less–rather than more–related.

And it was a very long evening: sadly many of the audience exited after the Mozart missing the delightful Philidor altogether! I had heard that Così would be cut, but it was far more complete than I imagined with the first act losing only the short Fernand-Guillaume duet. But the tenor then lost both of his arias in the second act and the mezzo hers, while the substitution of brief spoken dialogue for recitativo secco throughout did help to speed things along a bit.

Set around the time of the opera’s composition, Olcott’s spare, tasteful production was effective and welcome: no, Fleurdelise did not strip to the waist and roll around in the mud during “Per pieta”—she simply (and eloquently) sang from the center of the stage. Characters behaved as people, not comic stereotypes; Delphine was a practical, down-to-earth woman who eschewed nearly all the usual comic shtick adopted by most Despinas. This simple approach throughout proved direct and touching.

Olcott chose not to emphasize a grand difference between Fleurdelise and Dorabelle—the former was simply a bit more restrained and serious than her fun-loving sister.

The wonderful Blandine Staskiewicz was a delightful Dorabelle, her tangy, individual mezzo secure from top to bottom. By all rights Pascale Beaudin was over-parted as Fleurdelise, lacking the strong top and bottom to do justice to her two showpiece arias. Yet Beaudin performed throughout with such moving truthfulness that her character’s conflicts sprang movingly to life. Maltese soprano Claire Debono’s strong, clear voice rang out, far different from the standard-issue soubrette Delphine.

Veteran Bernard Deletré as Alphonse sounded nearly voiceless in the first scene but soon recovered and proved a gentle, yet insistent roué. Antonio Figueroa lacked the usual warmth of a Mozart tenor, but his brightly-placed voice and sincere manner proved winning in “Una aura amorosa” and in his seduction of Fleurdelise. Fellow Canadian Alex Dobson’s Guillaume was gruffer, less elegant than one might like, but he too entered enthusiastically into the dangerous game.

As appealing as this subtle Così was, the real revelation came after the second intermission when the cast (with American tenor Jeffrey Thompson joining them as M. Riss) dove stylishly into the whirl of Philidor’s 1775 romp. Having listened to a decent but bland 2005 French broadcast of the work, I wasn’t prepared for the scrumptious confection Opera Lafayette had concocted.

The work can be clumsily written; for example, out of the first four numbers, three are full-length da capo arias for Debono (who tossed them off with wit and verve), after which she has little to sing until the two final sextets. During the crucial pair of faux-seductions by M. Riss, most of the comedy transpires during the extensive spoken dialogue: the music consists of “songs” each character is awkwardly invited to “sing,” including the bravura aria for Mme la Prèsident which seems to be the only number to have been commercially recorded. Included in Christiane Eda-Pierre’s glorious Philidor-Grétry recital only recently released for the first time on CD though unfortunately unavailable in the US,

“De la coquette volage” proved one of the high points of the evening although the agile Beaudin lacked Eda-Pierre’s easy dazzle and sparkling top.

Like Mozart, Philidor supplies many ensembles, and particularly fine are several duets for the two squirming husbands as they are tortured overhearing their wives “succumbing” to M. Liss’s entreaties. Figueroa and Dobson vigorously infused these numbers with the dread of hypocrites afraid of becoming cuckolds, a fate they were more than willing to inflict on their friend. A sparky Thompson as the wily Liss displayed a piquant, light haut-contre more idiomatically French-sounding than Figueroa’s Italiante sound. The penultimate number, a sextet where all is revealed, hints at Mozartian complexity.

The Mozart-Philidor thesis proved more interesting to read than to sit through despite the fine Così. All in all, I’d have been very happy to have had an evening of just Les Femmes Vengées, and I suspect 90 minutes is about the right length for one of these pieces–most of Philidor’s light works are one-acters—as there are few moments of respite as the plot dizzily races ahead. I predict this production will have a great success during its Versailles visit, and I would heartily recommend the recording due on Naxos in 2015.