Most people probably know Adolphe Adam as the composer of the music for the ballet Giselle but he was more than that. He was also a scholar who worked hard to study and revive the work of Rameau and other pre-Revolution composers. So, when tasked with composing a piece for the Opéra Comique he chose to combine elements that had produced previous “hits”; a vocationally based plot, a love story and so on with a Louis XV setting that allowed him to include pastiche Baroque. The result was Le postillon de Lonjumeau; a work that had much success across Europe during the mid 19th century (Wagner conducted it in Riga) but which had long disappeared from the repertory when the Opéra Comique revived it in 2019. Denise Wendel-Poray reviewed it in the Summer 2019 issue of Opera Canada and it has now been released on DVD and Blu-ray.
It’s very cleverly constructed. It’s the wedding night of Chapelou; the handsome and vocally gifted postillon (coachman) at Lonjumeau; an insignificant place on the Paris Orleans road. He is about to join the lovely Madeleine in the bridal chamber when the bumptious Marquis de Corcy; director of the royal opera, whose carriage has broken down overhears him singing and spirits him off to Paris, sans Madeleine, to fame and fortune as a singer. This is the first time we hear about his high D which becomes a bit of a running joke. Fast forward ten years and Chapelou is the famous tenor Saint-Phar and Madeleine, having inherited her aunt’s fortune is the aristocratic opera patron Madame de Latour. Saint-Phar attempts to seduce her (she knows who he is but not vice versa) but she insists on marriage. He attempts to inveigle a fake priest into the ceremony but she outsmarts him and substitutes a real priest Now Saint-Phar is to be hanged for bigamy. There’s a brilliantly farcical scene in which Madeleine and Madame confront him (Madame played by her maid but sung by Madeleine) before al is revealed and she forgives him (at least until the next time). It’s very silly but very well done.
The production, directed by Michel Fau who also plays the maid Rose, is spectacular. The costumes are by Lacroix and parody the extremes of both aristocratic dress and stage costuming of the era. Brilliantly coloured lighting is used to create a completely over the top psychedelic effect. The direction of the singers is as fast paced and precise as farce must be and the mock baroque elements are fully exploited for laughs. There’s even a brief prologue featuring a distinctly grumpy Louis XV that would never have made it past 19th century censorship.
Much of the music sounds like standard, if stylish, French operetta fare but Adam does use his baroque opportunity to great effect. Sant-Phar gets some fiendishly difficult arias (lots of high Ds) and Madeleine gets a splendid set-piece “revenge aria” at the beginning of act 2. The ensembles, of which there are many, are well constructed in almost Rossini like style.
The principals; Michael Spyres as Saint-Phar and Canadian soprano Florie Valiquette as Madeline/Madame are quite brilliant. He sings both lyrically and brilliantly (all those high Ds) and she is pretty much his match with both lyricism and precise coloratura. She’s also a really excellent comic actor. They are well supported by the rest of the cast. There’s a fair bit of spoken dialogue and that too is precise and well timed. The chorus and orchestra of Opéra de Rouen Normandie are well up to the job and conductor Sébastien Rouland is clearly very into it and conducts with considerable flair.
François Roussillon makes an unfussy job of the filming helped by it being all fairly compact and brightly lit. On Blu-ray, sound and video are both excellent.
All in all this is a lot of fun and just the thing to watch when you realise you aren’t getting Parsifal anytime soon.
Catalogue number: Naxos NBD0112V
This review first appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Opera Canada