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'L'Amant Anonyme' 18th Century Opera Gets a Modern Twist

The little OPERA theatre of ny revives a unique French opera at 59E59.

Photo by Tina Beckman

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was born in Guadeloupe in 1745, the son of a French plantation owner and his African slave. From the humblest of origins, Chevalier rose to become a celebrated French violinist, fencer and eventually conductor of the leading symphony orchestra in Paris before his imprisonment during the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution. Of the six operas he composed, L'Amant Anonyme is the only one that survives in its entirety.

In this adaptation by Philip Shneidman and the little OPERA theatre of ny, the music and scenes of Chevalier's original work are intercut with scenes and monologues depicting the fascinating life of the composer himself. With this framework and with the New Vintage Baroque orchestra sitting directly onstage next to the actors, this production celebrates Chevalier and his music as much as the story itself.

The opera tells the tale of Valcour, the "anonymous lover" who cannot bring himself to reveal his affections to the beautiful Léontine, who is scornful of all romantic loves. After much pleading, the support of friends (even during the most awkwardly private moments) and a few tricks, he announces himself and the lady falls into his arms for an almost immediate wedding. It is a story as frivolous and nonsensical as you might expect of a rarely-performed 18th-century opera, but as a piece of history to be presented onstage, it works.

What does transcend the gap of over 200 years is the music itself, an extraordinary composition performed flawlessly by a young orchestra under the guidance of conductor Elliot Figg and just six vocalists. This production features two full casts of singers on alternate nights, but on the eve of its first performance, the talents of Everett Suttle, Jennifer Moore, Jesse Malgieri, Marie Masters, Anthony Webb and Aude Cardona all shined.

Unfortunately, the supertitles projected across the back wall of the theater during the sung French are difficult to read, making some of the action in the opera's story hard to follow. The framing narrative of Chevalier's life, meanwhile, is fascinating from a historical perspective but often distracts from the opera itself. And while we begin the performance on a particularly dramatic note—Chevalier in prison during the Revolution, wondering how he got to where he is now—the show never actually answers that question.

Likewise, the costuming of the six performers—a variety of mismatching black clothing to begin, with scarves and capes layered on later to evoke the setting of the original opera—proves distracting, the mixing of modern and period attire pulling audiences out of the story as they struggle to follow two different narratives. With no set at all and only the most basic lighting to frame the performers, the lacking elements of the production stand out all the more.

And while the little OPERA theatre of ny's adaptation is to be applauded for its direct confrontation of the racial issues in the story of the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, his narrative remains oddly unresolved. Instead, we are left with a soaring operatic double wedding, in which all problems have been resolved in the name of love. If, as has been proposed, L'Amant Anonyme is based on Chevalier's own experiences as a mulatto man in upper-class French society, one can only hope that his tale has such a happy ending. But that conclusion is left up to the imagination.

L'Amant Anonyme plays at 59E59 through March 20.

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