Grétry’s Little-Heard Comic Masterpiece Comes to Life

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GRÉTRY: L’Épreuve Villageoise / Sophie Junker, soprano (Denise); Talise Trevigne, soprano (Madame Hubert); Thomas Dolié, baritone (Monsieur de la France); Francisco Fernández-Rueda, tenor (André); Opera Lafayette; Ryan Brown, conductor / Naxos 8.660377

Here is a surprise and a delight: the world premiere recording of André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry’s 1784 comic opera, L’Épreuve Villageoise or The Village Trial. Grétry has long been one of those composers more talked about than heard, more admired by his contemporaries than by latter-day audiences, thus I found it interesting to actually hear one of his operas complete. Prior to this, the only piece by Grétry I had in my entire collection was the aria “Rose chérie” from Zemire et Azore, sung by Dame Maggie Teyte.

The plot is your typical love triangle of comic opera. Denise, a farm girl in love with André, is afraid that her fiancée would be too jealous of her when they were married. When her mother, Madame Hubert, questions her, she learns that the source of this jealousy is the wealthy landowner Monsieur de la France, who has also been flirting with her. Madame Hubert is a bit upset because de La France was wooing her just a short time ago. Denise likes the fact that de la France is handsome and a good dancer, but when he offers her everything the big city has to offer she realizes that she is in love with André and prefers the country life.

Speaking in general terms, Grétry was a later, French, more sophisticated composer in the Pergolesi mold. Although he mainly wrote brief comic operas like this one, he was widely liked and praised by his contemporaries for his sophisticated scores, particularly his famous opera Richard Coeur-de-Lion. One of the things I most appreciated when listening to this work was its deceptive simplicity in form, wedded to quite witty orchestral accompaniment. Grétry’s genius was in not trying to do too much with his music or his characters, but rather invest his score with wonderful little touches lilke the flute (or recorder) duet that introduces the first André-Denise duet. One thing I found interesting was that our lead soprano, Belgian Sophie Junker, has that old-fashioned sort of “French soprano” voice with a fast flicker-vibrato, a type of voice I thought had died out. I like it very, very much; it has character, and not just because of her timbre. Junker is a very lively singer and invests her role with a charming personality.

Our tenor, Fernández-Rueda, also has a light voice, almost of the type we now consider a “comprimario,” yet of good enough quality to manage Grétry’s light, pointed score, written as if by pin-pricks. Perhaps the best indication of just how effective his writing is can be heard in the Act 1 Finale, an ensemble that Mozart would have been proud to have composed, yet one imbued with Gallic sophistication. And the most amazing thing is that his music is not at all predictable in form: he almost always surprises the listener in the way the music moves forward and develops, including some quite surprising harmonic shifts into the minor with augmented chords behind it. Also note the sophisticated use of key changes and string tremolos behind the Act 2 Denise-André duo. This is quite clearly the work of a fine composer who spent some time thinking about what he was trying to do with both the music and the characters. Both our second soprano, Talise Trevigne (Madame Hubert) and baritone, Thomas Dolié (Monsieur de la France) have fine voices as well, which makes the whole production sparkle under the baton of Ryan Brown. Yes, the orchestra plays with “straight tone,” but they also play with an utterly charming style, pointing the music and infusing it with subtle dynamics changes.

One of the things that greatly aids the propulsion of the music here is the elimination of the spoken dialogue. Yes, I know it’s supposed to be performed with the dialogue, but as someone who doesn’t speak French or Italian (or German), I prefer hearing works like this without it. Overall, this is an utterly charming and quite original work, one worth hearing more than once, and I wholeheartedly recommend this sparkling recording.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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