|About this Recording
8.660377 - GRÉTRY, A.-E.-M.: Épreuve villageoise (L') (The Village Trial) [Opéra bouffon] (Opera Lafayette Chorus and Orchestra, R. Brown)
André-Ernest-Modeste Gretry (1741–1813)
An opéra bouffon in two acts
Opera Lafayette thanks Catherine Hubbard and the Bibliothèque municipale de Rouen for their assistance in obtaining copies of the 18th-century parts.
Opera Lafayette’s recording of Grétry’s L’épreuve villageoise is underwritten by David C. Frederick and Sophia Lynn.
Denise - Sophie Junker
L’épreuve villageoise was the only collaboration of André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry (1741–1813), leading composer of eighteenth-century opéra comique, and Pierre-Jean-Baptiste Choudard (1746–1806; known as Desforges), a Parisian-born actor and dramatist. The pair likely met through their mutual association with the Comédie Italienne, the theatrical company which produced the majority of Grétry’s works and at which both Desforges and his wife were sporadically employed. (Madame Desforges would go on to play the wealthy fermière Madame Hubert during the opening run of the comic opera.)
L’épreuve villageoise was first performed under an alternate title (Théodore et Paulin) and in markedly different form—in three acts rather than two, and with a larger and more socially diverse cast. The opéra comique received only mixed reviews when it premièred before the French court at Versailles in March of 1784. The esteemed audience—which included Queen Marie Antoinette—appeared utterly indifferent to the principal plotline featuring noble characters, all the while delighting in the intrigues of rustic secondary figures. As the critic of the Mercure de France, a leading literary gazette, described it, the comic relief had completely overshadowed the main thrust of the drama (“l’accessoire a écrasé le principal”). In response, Grétry and his librettist undertook a drastic revision of their work, excising much of the serious material from the original and elevating the lighter-weight subplot into primary action. The result is a crisp and lively farce, centring on the clever farmer’s daughter Denise and her two competing suitors—the ambitious valet La France and the jealous, if otherwise well-intentioned, André. In this altered form, L’épreuve villageoise was promptly returned to the stage, appearing at the Comédie Italienne from June of 1784 onwards, and warmly embraced by Parisian audiences and critics alike.
The reworking of Théodore et Paulin into L’épreuve villageoise—and the elevation of the rustic topos inherent in this process—attests to the vivid appeal of paysannerie in the music, art, and literature of the late ancien régime. Grétry’s opéra comique is one of numerous contemporaneous examples of the genre engaging with a Rousseau-inspired validation of natural simplicity and the moral superiority of country life. It is hardly coincidental that the height of the work’s success at the French court corresponded with the construction of Marie Antoinette’s “hamlet” at the Petit Trianon, a pseudo-Norman village replete with a mill, a “pleasure” dairy, and a fully functioning farm. While the peasant Denise does not possess a formal education (when she receives a love letter from La France, for example, it is clear that she is unable to read it), she is nonetheless able to outwit her worldlier would-be suitor; in this case, common sense and country gumption prevail over the pretensions of the aspiring beau monde. And, throughout, La France is made an object of gentle ridicule for his insistence on the pleasures of the urban sphere. He adores fashionable theatre, concerts, and the brilliant splendours of court—which the villagers insist must pale in comparison to their own analogous entertainments: the beauty of nature, the warbling of birds, and the rising of the sun, respectively. Though, of course, there is a fair measure of irony here, given the dramatic medium through which this moral is communicated and the Parisian and courtly audiences to which it was originally addressed.
The peasant characters and village setting of L’épreuve villageoise are colourfully reflected in the poetic and musical idioms employed by the librettist and composer—though this should not be taken to imply a lack of polish in the construction of the work as a whole. As contemporary commentators underscored, the writing of Grétry and Desforges is based upon a careful balance of naiveté and finesse—of a jaunty veneer that belies a studied refinement of underlying form. One might draw a parallel between this superficial rusticity and the prevailing aesthetic of Marie Antoinette’s aforementioned hamlet, where luxurious rococo interiors were concealed within straw-thatched outbuildings, and dairy pails were made of fine Sèvres porcelain but painted to look like wood. While the characters in the opéra comique, with the exception of La France, speak in a heavily accented patois, their dialogue is, in fact, quite sophisticatedly structured. Desforges’ libretto is written not in prose, but in the most elevated type of French poetic expression—largely in elegant verses of alexandrines. The villagers and farmers, in other words, fashion their country dialect into the same metric molds utilised by kings and princes in the classical tragedies of Corneille and Racine.
The music of L’épreuve villageoise offers a similar play in contrast and tension between divergent stylistic registers. On the one hand, the hypocritical pretentions of La France (as well as, perhaps, his unsuitability for Denise) are reflected in his self-consciously ornate music. For instance, as he sings of the attractions of the simple and charming country belle (Adieu, Marton, adieu, Lisette ), he nonetheless maintains the rather elaborate and mannered affect of the Italian operatic school—replete with da capo form, vocal virtuosity, and repetitive cadential structures. This idiom stands in distinction to the more “natural” default expression of Denise, who begins each act with a set of strophic couplets (“Je n’avions pas encore quatorze ans”; “Bon dieu, bon dieu, comme à c’te fête”) reminiscent of the popular song tradition of the vaudeville, albeit in updated and polished form. Grétry’s finest music is contained in his extended ensemble finales, multi-sectional numbers that combine a vigorous surface energy—derived in part from the gestural rhetoric of dance—with a complex interplay of voicing, well-suited to the depiction of the farcical imbroglios at hand.
L’épreuve villageoise was one of Grétry’s most popular works, maintaining a presence on Parisian stages for more than a century after its première. In addition to hundreds of performances in the French capital, the opera was extensively disseminated elsewhere in Europe and in the New World, with documented productions in Amsterdam, Bern, Brussels, Cologne, Moscow, St Petersburg, New York, Cap Français, and Port-au-Prince, to name just a few. The extraordinary reach of L’épreuve villageoise is indicative of the international success attained by opéra comique, more broadly, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Over and above the more prestigious tragédie lyrique, comic opera came to define French music outside of France because it was readily transportable—generally modest in scale and economically efficient to reproduce. Moreover, because it contained spoken dialogue rather than recitative, the genre was relatively straightforward to translate, further contributing to its exportability. Indeed, L’épreuve villageoise was eventually published in both Dutch and German in addition to the original French. Opéra comique had from its very start been defined by a spirit of adaptability, even beyond the professional stage. The greatest musical “hits” of L’épreuve villageoise were spun off in low-cost commercial prints, made widely available in chamber music arrangements for domestic use. And in his memoirs, Grétry himself suggested changes to the opera that an amateur troupe might make to render it easier to perform. Despite its fashionable status at the Bourbon court, then, this was a work—and an art form—tailored for flexibility, accessibility, and broad popular appeal.
Opera Lafayette’s production of L’épreuve villageoise draws upon this rich history of adaptation and cultural transfer, situating Grétry’s comedy on the outskirts of the operatic capital of the antebellum United States: New Orleans. New Orleans was the first city in North America to host a permanent opera troupe. And by the opening decade of the nineteenth century, remarkably, it boasted not one but two lyric companies to serve its population of roughly 12,000 residents, the competing theatres of the Rue St Philippe and the Rue St Pierre. Opéra comique, in general, and the compositions of Grétry, in particular, dominated the repertories of these rival institutions during this period. Grétry’s Silvain is the first opera known to have been presented in the city (at the St Pierre in 1796); and in the next fifteen years New Orleans would be treated to a further 79 performances of twelve different works from his oeuvre. It is only fitting that Opera Lafayette—an American company at the vanguard of the modern revival of French comic opera—should return L’épreuve villageoise to this site of its first “homegrown” efflorescence.
 Denise, daughter of a well-to-do widow farmer, complains that her fiancé has such a jealous nature that marriage to him would be unbearable. When her mother, Madame Hubert, arrives, Denise reveals the source of the jealousy: Monsieur de la France, the overseer of the local plantation, has been wooing her. Madame Hubert is angered; it wasn’t so long ago that Monsieur la France was courting her. The two women decide to find a way to punish both men.
 When Monsieur de la France arrives, Madame Hubert pretends to think he is there to court her, and he is forced to admit he is after Denise instead. The mother feigns reluctant consent to his courting her daughter.
 Denise catches her fiancé, André, spying on her and chides him for his jealousy. 5 He promises to stop and pretends to leave, but in fact hides to observe her. He witnesses her receiving a bouquet and love note from Monsieur de la France. 6 He flies into a rage and tears up the note. To spite him, Denise asks Monsieur de la France to speak the words of the note out loud in André’s presence. The three quarrel until Madame Hubert arrives, and they ask her to settle the matter. She does by announcing that André’s punishment will be Denise’s marriage to Monsieur de la France.
At that moment, revellers from the village arrive to invite all to the festivities. 7 As they dance, André storms off in anger, and Monsieur de la France assumes himself the victor.
 Left alone for a moment, Denise muses that although Monsieur de la France is a fine dancer and a handsome gentleman, she still prefers André.  She then overhears the vain Monsieur de la France sing a farewell to all the fine ladies he has known in town and declare his new love for the “rural girl” he is wooing.  When André finds him, the two men quarrel, and Denise tries to intervene. André claims that he has given up on Denise and found a new lover at the village festivities. Delighted, Monsieur de la France leaves to summon the rest of the village to witness his triumph.
In his absence, Denise urgently tries to find out from André who his new love is. He plays her along but finally admits that Denise is his one and only love.  She realises that she, too, is susceptible to the pangs of jealousy and forgives André.
Her mother arrives, and Denise reveals that she has no intention of marrying Monsieur de la France, who will always look down on her as his social inferior. Madame Hubert at first pretends to resist the idea but finally admits she is delighted at Denise’s choice.
 When Monsieur de la France returns to make his formal proposal to Denise in front of the entire village, he promises her all the wonders the city can offer: fashion, art, and entertainments. She declares that none of them offers an appeal greater than the joys of village life and declares that André is her choice. Humiliated, Monsieur de la France storms off as the rest of the cast sings in praise of love and a happy marriage.
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