by Sam Juliano
Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny developed both the subject matter and the musical style of the opera comique in the middle years of the eighteenth century. The composer is known to have been greatly influenced by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona, an ‘opera seria’ that exerted enormous influence on the direction of music during this period of rapid expansion, in which the genre was transformed from a marked reliance on popular melodies to a time of exceeding musical creativity. The Italians introduced the French to the idea that libretti be designed to serve and enhance the music, reforming the role of the composer, who had a subservient role in the earlier comedie en vaudevilles. Monsigny’s earlier works, composed circa 1759 to 1761, were basically comic intrigues revolving around disguises, deceptions, misunderstandings and reconciliations.
In 1762, Monsigny departed significantly from this overtly comedic style to a one that incorporated elements of humanism and moral enlightenment. Indeed, the virtues of the common folk, and more importantly personal freedom and equality were themes then embraced by the philosophers of this period. The musical content of Monsigny’s works – unsurprisingly – became more complex as a result, and a number of vocal ensembles were added. It can’t be denied that the composer’s style is repetitive, but his skills as a melodist, the comic spirit evident in his earlier work and the immediacy of dramatic expression his his later works made his a formidable figure in French opera from any period.
Le Deserteur, a three-act play with a libretto by Michel Jean Sedaine, is widely considered by musicologists as Monsigny’s most significant achievement. Indeed, history reveals it was easily his most popular work, and in fact the only one of his prolific output that has survived. It is said that Monsigny was so afraid of further impairing his failing eyesight that he opted not to compose anything for the final forty years of his life. More than any of his operas, Le Deserteur epitomized the late-career maturity that brought the comedy and pathos together. The opera tells a melodramatic tale of a soldier condemned to death for desertion. While on leave, Alexis the hero, is deliberately led to believe that Louise, his fiancee, has wed her cousin Bertrand. In despair he announces his intentions to flee his capture by a quartet of guards. This rousing ensemble closes the first act with hypnotic tempi and dynamics in the work’s first ever CD release by Naxos. Act II is set in the prison cell Alexa shares with the drunken Montaucil, a fellow soldier. Alexis is visited by Louise and her father who explain the misunderstanding. Emotional scenes between the three are punctuated with outbursts from Montauciel; among these is the opera’s most justly celebrated air ‘Je ne deserterai.’ The act concludes with a comic duet between Bertrand and Montauciel juxtaposing two solos. The final act showcases a beautiful wedding of pathos and suspense. Alexis prepares to face his death. Louise undertakes a desperate offstage journey in search of a royal pardon, and having obtained this, returns in time to secure the traditional happy conclusion. The ‘Opera Lafayette Orchestra’ with Ryan Brown manning the baton bring sublime beauty and studied pacing, while a bevy of intense singers make extraordinary contributions. Baritone William Sharp is appropriately light weight as Alexis, while soprano Dominique Labelle is enchanting as Louise. (her second act air, the heavenly ‘Dans quel trouble te plonge’ is one of the opera’s most ravishing passages and a certain selling point for this sadly-neglected opera.) Baritone David Newman gives Montauciel dashing persona with a colorful voice, transforming ‘Je ne deserterai’ into a Rossini-esque showpiece.
The sublime and inobstrusive playing of the distinguished ‘Opera Lafayette Orchestra’ serves as a rapturous underpinning in a work rightly dominated by the human voice. La Deserteur is such an entrancing listen, that this 2 CD set is a must-own for those looking to unearth this hidden gem.