ADAM: Le Postillon de Lonjumeau / Michael Sypres, ten (Chapelou/Saint-Phar); Florie Valiquette, sop (Madeleine/Madame de Latour); Franck Leguérinel, bar (Le Marquis de Corcy); Laurent Kubla, bass (Bijou/Alcindor); Julien Clément, voc (Bourdon); Chœur Accentus; Orchestre de l’Opéra de Rouen Normandie; Sébastien Rouland, cond . Naxos 2110662 (live: Paris, April 5 & 7, 2019)
I rarely review operatic DVDs because I am allergic to Regietheater; in fact, it has a severely toxic effect on me; but in this case, as in the case of Chabrier’s L’Etoile which I reviewed much earlier on this blog, Naxos has chosen to issue a cute and relatively harmless stage adaptation of Adolphe Adam’s early-19th-century classic comedy about an 18th-century French mailman, or “postillon,” whose sterling tenor voice made him a star in Parisian opera circles.
So many of these frou-frou French opéra-comiques of the period have disappeared, many forever a few occasionally revived for the curious, that one must surely pay tribute to Adam’s powers of musical invention in this one case. Postillon de Lonjumeau absolutely bubbles over with attractive and memorable “earworms,” tunes that stick in your head and stay there long after the show is over. Indeed, one of our favorite churls, Richard Wagner, went to see Postillon as a young man and couldn’t get the tunes out of his head for five days and nights. And no, he didn’t enjoy the experience. It almost drove him crazy.
In this live performance from April of last year, what now seems like a Golden Age before the coronavirus shut down live concerts around the world, the star of the show is clearly Ameri-can tenor Michael Spyres, whose work I have admired for several years now. And interestingly, he is the only foreigner in an otherwise all-French cast. What’s interesting about this is that, in our modern age of “star” casting, it’s usually the other way round. You might find one or two native speakers in a foreign opera, with the rest being various nationalities who learnt their language by rote.
Compared to the one decent complete recording available in French, with the rather tight, dry-voiced John Aler as Chapelou/Saint-Phar, the singing here is not only more attractive to the ear but livelier. It almost, but not quite, has the sparkle of the “wrong-language” German recording of the opera with the late Robert Swensen in the title role and Pamela Coburn (note, both Americans) as Madeleine/Madame de Latour. But it is that word “almost” that stands between pleasant enjoyment and all-out fun, and in that respect I place the blame on conductor Sébastien Rouland, a somewhat stodgy routinier who clearly knows the music but doesn’t know how to make the first act sparkle. At times he pulls a Giuseppe Sinopoli, conducting one section briskly and the next too slowly. He has also chosen to include most of the spoken recitatives, much of which is delivered in an over-the-top manner. This, however, can be forgiven in that Postillon is a bit of a comic farce anyway.
But what a feast for the eyes this prediction is! Director Michel Fau and his set designers really outdid themselves in not only providing nice, retro-but-not-exact-looking sets and costumes, but in infusing those sets and costumes with all the colors of the rainbow. Except for when the camera is focused on mid-range and close-ups of Spyres and Florie Valiquette, which it is quite often, the production is a real treat for the eye and captures the mood and flavor of the opera perfectly. It almost looks like a Georges Méliès film in color.
Interestingly, after the rather stodgy first act, Rouland and his orchestra wake up and realize that this is supposed to be a sparkling French comedy. The conducting and playing in the second and third acts sounds like an entirely different conductor. No longer is he fussing around with the tempi; he is equally caught up in the liveliness of what is going on onstage. Perhaps Spyres and Valiquette came round to his dressing room after the first act and gave him something to pep him up (hopefully, nothing illegal), but whatever the case, the rest of the opera flies as if it had wings.
One thing I questioned musically was the profusion of trills that Spyres throws into his famous aria. Other tenors with trills, such as Helge Rosvaenge, Joseph Schmidt and Nicolai Gedda, recorded the aria with but one trill near the very end, but Spyres tosses them off as if he is throwing out Frisbees in the park. The one score I checked, a pretty old one from the 19th century, didn’t have those extra trills in it. To me it sounds like too many frills in an aria that’s already a showcase and a half. Franck Leguérinel, the French comic baritone who sings the Marquis de Corcy, tends to overact all of his spoken recitatives as well as his parts in the duets, but his command of French patter is spot-on. In his difficult Act II aria, Spyres even outdoes Swenson in vocal control and virtuosity. And, in his final aria, Spyres not only sings more trills but throws out a high E—not an E-flat, folks, but an E!—in a bright, ringing voix mixte that has to be heard to be believed.
Thus this is a performance that accelerates, and although I still think the first act was stodgy and a bit underplayed by the orchestra, I absolutely have to recommend this as the best French-language version of the opera yet recorded. I think you will agree.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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