If I had been languishing in obscurity for 250 years like Joseph Bodin de Boismortier I think I’d rather stay that way than be rescued by Hervé Niquet and the French “comedy” duo Dino and Shirley (Corinne and Gilles Benizio). To be fair their take on Boismortier’s 1743 ballet-comédie Don Quichotte chez la duchesse isn’t nearly as bad as their previous brutal murder of Purcell’s King Arthur but it’s really weird and patchy. It’s rather hard to describe in fact. It’s a sort of mash up of farce, commedia, slapstick and pastiche in which bits of baroque opera occasionally break out. It’s also staged as meta theatre with the stage interacting with the pit and Niquet himself ending up in the action.
Only the musical scenes of Boismortier’s original work survive. The spoken scenes that linked the narrative are lost and so have to be recreated. This production goes much further than that. As well as creating scenes that provide some sort of narrative structure to the basic story of a duke and duchess luring Don Quixote to their palace and trying to persuade him that the duchess is a better bet than Dulcinea we get all sorts of interpolated scenes including Shirley as a “flamenco” singer accompanied by Niquet on castanets and followed up by a version of La Cucaracha as well as Niquet and the band singing a little chanson about visiting his grandmother by the railway in St. Quentin followed by a kazoo solo. It’s all very campy and finishes with the Japanese scene where lots of cod Japanese (bing binga binga ming tang tong) is inserted.
The music gets mucked about with too. There are up tempo versions of some numbers and even some baroque skat. Actually one really has to admire the band, Le Concert Spirituel, for their ability to switch modes all the time while still sounding great in the baroque stuff proper. What we get to hear of Boismortier’s actual music is not bad. It’s tuneful in a French baroque sort of way, livelier than Lully and very accessible but not nearly as interesting as Rameau.
The performances really fall into two groups. There are the actual singers, principally Chantal Santon Jeffery as La Duchesse, François-Nicolas Geslot as Don Quichotte and Marc Labonnette as Sancho Panza. They are all pretty decent singers though not perhaps in the first rank of French baroque specialists and they can all camp it up as required. Then there are the Benizios and Niquet. They are all terrible singers, perhaps deliberately, and basically play themselves. Gilles Benizio is the duke and has a whole lot of banter with Niquet in the pit as well as being involved in the stage action. The supporting cast and chorus are pretty decent and there are some pretty good dancers.
Louise Narboni’s video direction is pretty unobtrusive. We are on the small stage of the theatre in the Palace of Versailles so there’s not too much conflict about shot lengths. The production is bright and well lit too so DVD picture quality is quite adequate. Curiously (for a 2015 recording) the only sound option is Dolby stereo. Still, it’s perfectly adequate for this piece. There are no extras but the booklet has a synopsis (essential) and short pieces by Niquet and the Benizios. Subtitle options are French, English and German.
There were plenty of times watching this disk when I asked myself why I was bothering but I did make it to the end, which I failed to do with the King Arthur. I can’t imagine watching it again unless, perhaps, I had some desperate need to understand what the French apparently find funny.