|About this Recording
8.660263-64 - MONSIGNY, P.-A.: Deserteur (Le) (Sharp, Labelle, Monoyios, Newman, Opera Lafayette, R. Brown)
Pierre-Alexandre MONSIGNY (1729–1817)
Drame en Trois Actes
Alexis – William Sharp, Baritone
Opera Lafayette Orchestra
Sedaine and Monsigny and the Genre of Opéra Comique
Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny (1729–1817)
Michel-Jean Sedaine (1719–1797)
What was new about Le Déserteur in 1769 that contributed to its enormous and widespread popularity in the late eighteenth century, and what made it so influential to subsequent works of musical theatre? Its melodic charms and the musical variety of its different airs are immediately apparent. Other elements, however, may not be, perhaps because we have become so used to them in opera since that time. These include an overture which is very specifically programmatic, scenes in which both the serious main character (Alexis) and the main comic one (Montauciel) are on stage together alternating airs, a central heroine who saves the day, and an extended final scene built around the vaudeville-like theme which opens the work.
Monsigny and Sedaine’s blending of comic moments with moments of great sentiment and pathos plays out in countless ways. A few things to note include the double-entendres in the text of Jeannette’s first air, which give this strophic song its humour, and the contrasting drama and unusually dark key (F minor) of the duo between Alexis and Jeannette. In Alexis’s troubled recitative towards the end of the first act, the plaintive oboe motif indicating his beloved Louise after “Réponds, réponds” must have been noted with interest by Berlioz. In the second act, Montauciel’s weak syllables on high notes (“C’est blesser toutes les lois,” indeed!) contribute delightfully to his drunkenness. Just before the return to the A section of Louise’s tender Romance in which she reassures Alexis of her love, there is a tremolo shudder in the strings indicating that Alexis knows he is condemned to death even as Louise does not. The comic duo ending the second act is a musical joke, a performance of two contrasting characters’ songs at the same time. (To accentuate this, one early choreographer had Bertrand bending down on the main beats while Montauciel straightened up on them.) To fully comprehend the air with its false accents at the beginning of Act 3 that makes fun of Montauciel’s illiteracy, we must know that the words he spells out but does not understand, “Vous êtes un blanc bec”, mean essentially, “You are an idiot”. Of Alexis’s three lonely prison scene airs which follow, it might be noted how the very expressive first one, “Il m’eût été si doux”, with the prominent bassoon line, echoes “Lieux funestes” from Rameau’s Dardanus. Monsigny’s writing is richly imaginative and rewarding, and consistently reflects Sedaine’s intentions.
Presenting opéra comique today poses several challenges that other forms of opera do not. First of course is how to present the extensive dialogue and story not conveyed by the music, and in what language. In our live performances we commissioned an English narration for an actor who played an elder Montauciel looking back in time and telling the story. For this recording we chose to record only the music but provide a short written explanation of the action between the airs in the booklet. Scholars such as Raphaëlle Legrand have shown us that the actor-singers of the Opéra-Comique had very specific dramatic and musical characteristics which the librettist and composer kept carefully in mind while writing these works. In contemplating restaging them today in their entirety, with dialogue, one imagines that a troupe of actor–singers with as much experience on Broadway as in the opera house would provide the appropriate mix of musical and theatrical pleasures.
Louise, her father Jean-Louis, her aunt Marguerite, a friend Jeannette, and Bertrand, a cousin of Alexis, have all gathered to plot a ruse aimed against Alexis at the behest of the Duchess, the landlady of their village on the border of Flanders. Not too far from their village, the French army is assembled, ready for battle, and awaits the visit of the King of France to review the troops. Alexis, a soldier in the French army, is in love with Louise and has been sent back to his village with a message for the Duchess. Louise has asked him for a rendez-vous under the elm tree but instead the Duchess has instructed that Alexis should see a mock wedding procession in which Louise will be the bride and Bertrand the groom. Jeannette is to break the false news to Alexis, thus hastening his return to the army before the King’s visit. Louise is distraught at the thought of the grief Alexis will be feeling (Ariette: Peut-on affliger ceux qu’on aime? ) but must obey her father and the Duchess. Jeannette awaits Alexis under the elm tree, and Jean-Louis has her practise the song she will sing when Alexis arrives, (Ariette: J’avais égaré mon fuseau ). Jean-Louis leaves. Alexis presently arrives, exhausted from having climbed with speed up the hill to the village, drops his uniform, his sabre and his knapsack and sings of his pleasure at seeing his beloved Louise (Ariette: Ah! Je respire ), whereupon he spots the mock wedding procession passing by. He turns to Jeannette, who is beginning to sing her song, and asks her what wedding party this was. After hearing confirmation by Jeannette that this was the wedding party of Louise with Bertrand (Duo: Serait-il vrai? ), Alexis gives vent to his grief (Ariette: Infidèle, que t’aije fait? ). A few soldiers passing by observe Alexis and believe that he is intent on deserting the army. They question him and after first denying it, Alexis, out of despair, admits to deserting in order to put an end to his life (Quintet: Fuyons ce lieu que je déteste ).
In prison, Alexis reads the love letter he had received from Louise a few days earlier and wonders how she could have been so duplicitous (Ariette: Mourir n’est rien ). A fellow prisoner, Montauciel, tries to cheer him up by inviting him to drink wine with him while reproaching him for having deserted (Ariette: Je ne déserterai jamais ). Thereupon Louise arrives. Montauciel leaves them alone. Alexis heaps reproaches on Louise who tries in vain to explain the situation (Duo: O Ciel! Puis-je ici te voir? ). Finally, Alexis calms down long enough for Louise to tell him about the ruse of the Duchess. She then gently reproaches him for having so little faith in her (Ariette: Dans quel trouble te plonge ). Jean-Louis arrives and Alexis, wanting to confide to him alone, asks Louise to leave them. Jean-Louis confirms that it was all a ruse concocted by the Duchess, but Louise returns, alarmed, having just learned that Alexis will be executed for having deserted (Trio Fuga: O Ciel! Quoi tu vas mourir/Console-toi ). Alexis is called out to stand military trial. Jean-Louis learns from the jailer that Alexis will be executed in about five to six hours and rushes out to inform the Duchess and ask her to intervene to prevent such an injustice. Louise resolves to ask the King to pardon Alexis and rushes out. Bertrand arrives and is met by Montauciel who enjoins him to drink and sing (Bertrand’s Air: Tous les hommes sont bons; Montauciel’s Air: Vive le vin, vive l’amour). They then sing together their chansons (Duo) 
Montauciel, who is trying to learn to read and write, is very impressed by Alexis’ fluency in these matters. Alexis encourages him to keep studying and Montauciel tries reading a sheet of paper he has been given (Ariette: V, o, u, s, e, t, et te ). This is very distracting to Alexis who asks Montauciel to leave him alone, promising to read his sheet of paper after he has finished writing his letter. Alexis writes his adieu to Louise (Ariette: Il m’eût été si doux de t’embrasser ), then reads the sheet of Montauciel’s, where, it turns out, an insult is written. Montauciel takes offence and a scuffle ensues. Alexis punches the nose of Montauciel and leaves. A messenger, Courchemin, arrives, and recounts that he has witnessed a young girl running across fields to meet the King and ask him for the pardon of her lover (Ariette: Le Roi passait ). Couchemin believes the pardon was granted because she was given a letter and every one was crying “Long live the King”. Drum rolls are heard. Alexis laments that he shall die without seeing Louise again (Ariette: On s’empresse ). Montauciel brings him wine and asks him to forgive him his bad temper. As the soldiers come to take him to his execution, Louise enters breathlessly and swoons in his arms. Alexis sings goodbye to her (Adieu, chère Louise ) and leaves with the soldiers. Louise slowly comes to herself (Recitative: Où suis-je? O Ciel! ). Offstage, cries of “Long live the King” are heard. Louise realizes that Alexis is about to be executed and rushes out to deliver the letter of pardon. As she leaves, Marguerite and Jean-Louis enter to let her know that Alexis has already been pardoned. The scene changes to a public square where Alexis, surrounded by a cheering crowd, tries to break through to find Louise, whom he had left unconscious in a swoon (Finale: ).
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