by Sam Juliano
The appearance of eighteenth-century opera on CD is a blessing for both fans of opera comique and those looking to broaden the horizons of a form that takes risks far too infrequently. The French composer Francois-Andre Danican Philador is thought to be the first to achieve real distinction in a style that eventually merged with Italian opera in the early nineteenth century, in the form of comedy buffa. Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Mozart’s Don Giovanni are seminal works in the later category. Philador’s major contribution to the emergence of the opera comique as a respectable musical genre, is the application of realistic characters and situations. It can be concluded that he handled his limited orchestral resources cleverly, and the vocal lines are rich, melodious and descriptive.
History does relate that there were charges of plaguerism against Philador, published years after his death from the likes of Berlioz and other music critics that he had plundered the work of Gluck, Galuppi, Pergolesi and Jommelli. The fact that Philador had actually seen Gluck’s Orfeo opened him up for accusations for music that he wrote for Ernelinde and Le Sorcier, two operas that bear more than remarkable similarities. But both the dubious degree of intent and the non-consumation of such charges should stop the skeptics in their tracks, and allow Philador’s standing to hold sway for this style and time period. The composer’s most famous (and best) opera is Tom Jones, composed in 1765, and presented in three acts. Sancho Panza, which was recently recorded and released by Opera Lafayette with Ryan Brown conducting, is considered a more obscure Philador work, but it has gained in reputation over the past decades. Antoine-Alexandre Poinsinet (1735-1769) created the libretto of Sancho Panca from a particularly mean-spirited passage in Cervantes’ Don Quixote. The knight of the mournful countenance has promised his simple-minded squire, Sancho Panza, the governership of an island for his faithful service – a dream that the duke and dutchess features in Part 2 fullfill as part of an elaborate series of tricks played on Don Quixote and Sancho. When faced with the real demands of governing the imaginary land -the island of Barataria – Sancho quickly renounces all interest in being a governor.
The single CD of one of Philador’s most obscure work was released by Naxos in a 20 track presentation that runs less than an hour and includes no spoken dialogue from the opera. This may distress those looking to follow the narrative arc more closely, but for the purpose of a CD the omission is the better way to present it. The American baritone Darren Perry, American soprano Meghan McCall, and Italian-American soprano Elizabeth Calleo give the work vocal distinction, and are backed by Brown conducting the Opera Lafayette Orchestra on period instruments. It is suggested by some that Perry’s range is ragged, but it’s hard to ascertain that from the professional recording and the strong presence of his piercing voice, which allows for some major moments, like the one referred to as Sancho’s ‘boule’ aria, in which he imagines his travails on the island, and the duet of Sancho and Don Crispinos.
The opera music from this period is certainly an acquired taste, and initial exposure can be alienating, especially for those who count their opera affections for the Italian melodic work that came after. Yet there is a seductive quality to Philador, that seems to weave its spell after repeat listenings. The short duration of the CD and the brevity of the individual passages makes this experiment manageable, and may well make an unlikely fan out of a listener who previously tuned out to a form that derived from recitative roots.
Even for those who might take a while to appreciate the work of impressive vocalists from this period, Ryan Brown and the Opera Lafayette provide authentic and spirited music that will be hard to resist.