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See latest reviews of other albums..., January 2012

Well sung and well paced by Opera Lafayette, the work is…pleasant, entertaining and even manages to tug at the heartstrings from time to time. © 2012 Read complete review

Kurt Moses
American Record Guide, March 2011

The singers for this recording were well chosen, their voices are pleasant and attractive, and they have good French diction. Ryan Brown is a leading figure in the revival of baroque opera in the US; he leads an orchestra of 30 players. It’s all very pleasant…

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Barry Brenesal
Fanfare, March 2011

By contemporary accounts, the musical training of Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny (1729–1817) was limited to learning the violin in a Jesuit school near modern Artois, and studying composition for five months with Pietro Gianotti, a pupil of Rameau and author of Le Guide du compositeur. He worked as an accountant in Paris while initially writing for the Opéra Comique, and attracted the attention of the celebrated librettist Michel-Jean Sedaine. It was a break for Monsigny, as Sedaine had recently cut ties with Philidor, and was seeking a new colleague. The first fruits of their collaboration result was a success, and they worked together repeatedly over the years: On ne s’avise jamais de tout (1761), Le Roi et le fermier (1762), Rose et Colas (1764), Aline (1766), Le Déserteur (1769), and Félix (1777). At that point, Monsigny abruptly retired from the stage. He alleged that the loss of sight in one eye from a cataract and dimming in the other made him fear for his vision if he continued to compose. Whether true or not, it allowed the wealthy composer, born of impoverished nobility, to escape the accusation of being a bourgeois professional. He lived another 40 years without writing again for the stage.

Sedaine, who turned from Monsigny to Grétry, was a disciple of the librettist and playwright Goldoni. He took the relatively simple, comic theatricals of the nascent opéra comique and elaborated them into longer plots, more character development, less humor, and more sentiment. Le Déserteur proceeds far along the line toward melodrama, with its hero, Alexis, wrongfully imprisoned and condemned to death for supposed desertion. There are a couple of comic figures in it, notably Montauciel, a drunken fellow prisoner, but the overwhelming impression is one of concern for Alexis’s impending execution (dragged out for as long as possible, even to the cliché of the reprieve’s announcement cut short by a sudden fainting spell), and a focus on the emotions of those caught up in his fate.

Le Déserteur supplies comic airs, such as the illiterate Montauciel’s scene learning his letters by reading them from a page on which has been written “You are a fool” (shades of Molière’s ignorantus, ignoranta, ignorantum), or the “dueling chansons” of Montauciel and Alexis’s rustic cousin Bertrand, juxtaposed after successive entries. But what stands out in memory are the serious pieces: the pathos of Alexis’s act III lament, “On s’empresse, on me regarde”; its galant successor, “Adieu, chère Louise, adieu,” successfully displaying the same fullness of sorrow in a major key as Gluck’s “Che farò senza Eurydice”; a primitive fugal trio from act II relying for much of its powerful effect on diminished sevenths and offset rhythms; Louise’s distraught act III “Où suis-je?” with its repeated movement between heightened, fully accompanied recitative and abbreviated aria; and Alexis’s distraught “Infidèle, que t’ai-je fait?” with its repeated refrain to a supposedly deceitful Louise, “Réponds, réponds,” answered by a delicate oboe theme as the summoned image of the girl supposedly casts her eyes down. Monsigny’s musical dramaturgy is often crude, but his inspiration is often found in original turns of melody, or the unusual solutions he finds to evoke a complex, expressive text.

For reasons too elaborate to discuss here, opéra comique evolved as an art form with few players on stage, small orchestras, and no sung recitative. Opera Lafayette has chosen in the past to eliminate the last, employing members of the New York Baroque Dance Company as both dancers and mimes for the spoken portion of the evening’s festivities. For its live production of Le Déserteur, it added an actor-as-narrator, speaking lines written by Ryan Brown and Nick Olcutt. It’s not without precedent, at least in film; a similar narrator was employed by René Clair from an omniscient, unseen perspective in his 1947 Le Silence est d’or, while in Max Ophuls’s 1950 Le Ronde, a visible narrator speaks for the director, and links the lives of the characters together between scenes. Unfortunately, the narration was eliminated for this recording, though a good actor could have made it work very well. We have just the sung portions of the opera. Even the French libretto and its English translation, up on Naxos’s Web site, concentrate solely on the musical numbers.

The performances are varied, but generally competent or better. Dominique Labelle has a relatively dark soprano, with a fast but not obtrusive vibrato. She enunciates her French very clearly, and proves adept at handling the few figurations of her part. The brighter, finely etched, soubrettish tone of Ann Monoyios provides a useful contrast, and again displays a welcome agility. William Sharp is lacking in this department, managing figures decently but effortfully, sometimes ignoring runs in favor of aiming for, and hitting, a few notes. His lower range is weak, his phrasing pedestrian, but he communicates the expressive content of the text vividly. David Newman’s darker baritone is more distinguished, phrasing with point, and if he sometimes makes heavy weather of his figures, he manages a decent trill (three times). Tony Boutté has the most natural French of the cast, and a nimble, well-supported tenor voice. Darren Perry shows signs of an incipient wobble, along with difficulties generating sufficient chest resonance, though he clearly understands what he’s singing, and tries to deliver. Eugene Galvin supplies a reasonably solid bass-baritone, for the little that he’s heard. Ryan Brown leads the Opera Lafayette in a performance that weds verve to accuracy.

This probably would have made a very effective operatic DVD, given the involvement of an actor-as-narrator and a dance company. That said, the music from Le Déserteur is attractive and interesting, performed here more than adequately with spirit if not always with the freshest of voices.

David Shengold
Opera News, February 2011

Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny (1729–1817) was a major musical figure in his time. Inspired by Pergolesi’s comedies, he cofounded (with Grétry and Philidor) the distinctively French genre of opéra comique. After suffering penury during the French Revolution, the elderly Monsigny recovered professional status and productivity, though he eventually went blind. Le Déserteur, created to considerable acclaim in 1769, was his eleventh stage work and bore the very specific generic designation “drame en prose mêlée de musique.” In a way, it laid the groundwork for later revolutionary “rescue operas” that alternated comic and serious content, such as Paer’s Leonora and Beethoven’s Fidelio.

Under founder and conductor Ryan Brown, Washington’s fine early-music ensemble Opera Lafayette has specialized in French Baroque music. They produced Le Déserteur in early 2009 and recorded this ninety-eight-minute album. (All the dialogue and scenes not involving music are cut.) The music and its realization are quite delightful. After a spirited, thumping overture, the gracious numbers begin. A libretto is available online, and the booklet contains a synopsis that knits the songs together.

Canadian early-music diva Dominique Labelle launches the show well as Louise, forced by the local Duchess to participate in a false wedding to fool her fiancé, Alexis. Labelle handles the lyric sections (as in the attractive aria “Dans quel trouble te plonge ce que je te dis là”) with cool poise and has the technique for the more florid concerted numbers. Alexis, the soldier hero, was created by Joseph Caillot, a distinguished singing actor of evidently wide range. Veteran baritone William Sharp exhibits smooth tone, admirable pitch and refined French style, though trills are merely skillfully indicated and the lowest notes but modestly touched. Alexis’s musically alive Act I recitative (with oboe obbligato), alertly handled by Sharp, shows that Gluck was not the only composer engaged in reforming French operatic practice. As the soubrette Jeannette, Ann Monoyios shows fine musicianship but somewhat less than consistently fresh tone or consistently comprehensible words. The entire ensemble proves satisfactory, including deft baritone David Newman as the comic Montauciel and tenor Tony Boutté, shining brightly in two haute-contre roles; their “duet with bottle” ending Act II anticipates Osmin and Pedrillo. Brown’s instrumentalists show skill and dedication.

Anne Midgette
The Washington Post, December 2010

Monsigny, “Le Déserteur.” Ryan Brown, Opera Lafayette [Naxos]. Opera Lafayette continues its string of Naxos releases with a piece that’s a watershed in the development of French opéra-comique, that was the greatest success by this 18th-century composer, that had not been done in this country for a couple of hundred years when Opera Lafayette brought it to DC in 2009, and that is, at the very least, a charming curiosity.

Neil Crory
Opera Canada, December 2010

This intriguing new release makes a strong case for the rehabilitation of French composer Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny (1729–1817). Although this performance of his 1769 “drama in three acts” is somewhat polite vocally, the score itself is well constructed and tuneful. It’s also one that Hector Berlioz held in high regard. Writing about Le déserteur in the Journal des Débats in 1843, he said, “I believe indeed that the feeling for dramatic truth and the expression of passions and characters have not been carried further in any musical composition for the stage.” Indeed, one can hear anticipations of Berlioz’s own music in Monsigny’s recitativo obligato, “Infidèle, que t’ai-je fait?”

The libretto is a convoluted and silly affair. A Duchess (for unexplained reasons) plays a practical joke on a young soldier, Alexis, who is led to believe that his betrothed, Louise, is about to marry another man during his absence. In despair and wishing to end his life, Alexis admits, falsely, to being an army deserter and is imprisoned. Louise visits him in prison and reveals the Duchess’s ruse and its disastrous outcome. She then learns that Alexis is about to be executed for his supposed treason. Needless to say, the king grants a pardon at the last moment and the lovers are reunited.

Apart from some tightness in baritone David Newman’s upper register (as Montauciel) and some minor pitch problmes in Ann Monoyios’s light soprano (Jeannette), the singing is quite consistent. Unfortunately, one misses a sense of dramatic commitment on the part of a number of principals, including American baritone William Sharp (Alexis) and Canadian soprano Dominique Labelle (his paramour, Louise). Opera Lafayette, a period-instrument group dedicated to performing 17th- and 18th-century French opera, back the ensemble, with OL Artistic Director Ryan Brown conducting with gentle lyricism.

Highlights include a clever fugal Trio (for Louise, Alexis and Montauciel) in Act II, and in Act III, there is also a delightful moment where the prisoner, Montauciel, is trying to learn how to read and write. The aria is called, “V, o, u, s, e, t, et, te…”

Robert Hugill
MusicWeb International, December 2010

Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny studied initially at the Jesuit college in Saint-Omer, but the death of his father meant that he had to travel to Paris to seek paid employment. He continued his musical studies with a pupil of Rameau. His first opera-comique appeared in 1759 and led to further successes. His meeting with Michel-Jean Sedaine, Philidor’s librettist, led to a collaboration which produced a string of operas. His final work appeared in 1777, after which he stopped composing as he was blind in one eye from a cataract and frightened of losing his sight in the other.

Monsigny’s work is an interesting, if little known, stepping stone in the development of opera-comique. The genre originated in theatrical entertainments at fairs, which poked fun at the manners and high style of the tragédies lyriques produced at the Paris Opera. Opéra comique used spoken dialogue and characters replaced gods and goddesses with characters from daily life. Initially such pieces were simply plays with songs (comédies à ariettes) but under the influence of Pergolesi’s La serva padrona librettist Michel-Jean Sedaine developed the genre and with Monsigny, produced new types of opéra comique where the music was more than just an ornament.

Le Déserteur dates from 1769 and continued in the repertoire into the 19th century; in 1843 Berlioz commented on the piece with approbation in his Journal des Débats.

When originally produced it would have had significant spoken dialogue. When Opera Lafayette presented the work live they performed it with an English narration. On this recording we are given the sung parts only, which allows us to appreciate Monsigny’s music but does not give much of an idea of the structure. The CD booklet includes a detailed synopsis which describes the whole plot with the musical numbers cued in.

The plot itself is rather contrived and all stems from a rather cruel joke played on Alexis (William Sharp), who is in the army and is in love with Louise (Dominique Labelle). Alexis returns to his village to deliver a message to the Duchess who owns the village. At her instigation Louise, her father Jean Louis (Eugene Galvin), her aunt Marguerite (Claire Kuttler), a friend Jeannette (Ann Monoyios) and Bertrand (Tony Boutte) play a trick on Alexis and he apparently sees Louise getting married to Bertrand. In despair he does not object when soldiers accuse him of being a deserter. In prison a fellow prisoner, Montauciel (David Newman) tries to cheer him. Louise’s explanation of the joke is little consolation as Alexis is going to be executed as a deserter. Louise rushes off to the King and finally gains a pardon for Alexis.

The result is charming with some nice variety in the music. Alexis is presented as a serious character and his music includes three lovely, sad airs for him in prison. He alternates airs with the prime comic character, Montauciel, in a way which shows Monsigny and Sedaine blending comedy and pathos. Montauciel has a delightful drunken air and at the end of act 2 he and Bertrand sing a pair of contrasting songs and then sing them simultaneously. This is preceded by a delightful fugal trio for Alexis, Louise and her father. Act 3 opens with a final comic air for Montauciel, in which he tries to spell out and read a message—which actually turns out to be an insult.

Jeannette gets an opening air which is full of double-entendre, but her duet with Alexis is in the dark key of F minor as befitting the subject matter; Jeanette is explaining to Alexis about Louise’s wedding to Bertrand.

William Sharp has an attractive lyric baritone and makes a very personable Alexis, with Dominique Labelle as a charming Louise. Ann Monoyios could perhaps have made a little more of Jeannette’s aria with double entendres, but it is nicely sung. The remaining cast provide strong, characterful support. Ryan Brown and the Opera Lafayette Orchestra give the work a great deal of love and play with style.

My main complaint is that, without spoken dialogue, the airs just don’t have room to breathe. I would have far preferred to have the piece with highly truncated dialogue, rather than none at all.

This isn’t a master-work, but it is a fascinating and charming piece of operatic history. Ryan Brown and his forces resurrect the work with love, a missing link between tragédies lyriques and 19th century opéra comique.

Dominique Joucken
Classica, December 2010

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Opéra (France), December 2010

Performed at the Comédie-Italienne in 1769, Le Déserteur represents an important moment in the history of French opera. At a time when when opéra-comique was limited to polite but vapid subjects, Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny (1728–1817) and Michel-Jean Sedaine (1719–1797), his librettist, introduced a notion of tragedy, inspired by the ideas developed by Diderot (the work, although in opéra-comique form, is defined by the authors as a “drama”). The plot is as slim as it is unreal. Alexis loves Louise but, following a joke she plays on him, thinks he has been jilted and pretends to be a deserter, hoping to be executed. He is jailed and sentenced to death, but following various plot twists everything turns out for the good and he marries his beloved.

Although he was already well known for Rose et Colas (1764) and Aline, reine de Golconde (1766), Le Déserteur brought Monsigny the kind of marked sucess that, just before the reign of Grétry, placed him at the top of the list of French opéra-comique composers. The work gave birth, in rather embryonic fashion, to a fertile subgenre: the “rescue” drama, as later exemplified by Grétry’s Richard Coeur de lion, Cherubini’s Lodoïska, Beethoven’s Fidelio, or Rossini’s La gazza ladra.

The music is varied, often taking on the simple-minded tone of classical opéra-comique, but also expressing a darker and more lyrical character, especially in Alexis’ arias. In creating the earthy character of Montauciel, the hero’s cellmate, Sedaine and Monsigny have ultimately heightened what is tragic by means of the comedic, a Shakespearean technique that we find even in romantic drama.

Opera Lafayette is a Washington-based company, specializing in pre-1800 opera. In sixteen seasons they have performed many French rarities and have recorded several full-length works with Naxos: Zélindor, roi des Sylphes by Rebel and Francoeur, Orphée et Eurydice by Gluck, Armide by Lully, and Oedipe à Colone by Sacchini. Spoken dialogue has been cut for linguistic reasons, which ordinarily would be a shame, but undoubtedly realistic in this case because of several non-French-speaking performers.

The cast is well up to the task. American mezzo Ann Monoyios has a curiously throaty voice, but her role (the coquettish Jeanette) is a minor one. Her compatriot William Sharp has good French pronunciation and is the right match for the role of Alexis as a quite light and very elegant baritone with an effortless high register. Equally excellent is Canadian soprano Dominique Labelle. As a specialist in Handel operas, which she has often sung and recorded, she gives real dramatic presence to the role of Louise with her beautiful and slightly dark tone. American David Newman tackles the role of Montauciel—created by the famous Trial—with perhaps more vocal gifts than his distant predecessor, who was apparently a better actor than singer.

Artistic Director Ryan Brown opts for a “mixed” style, between the tonal austerity of historic interpretation and a more modern tone. His lively and precise directing brings out all the color of this Déserteur, a work that is both interesting and important.

(translated by Huston Simmons)

David Denton
David's Review Corner, October 2010

Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny was numbered among the most import composers in the creation of the French opera comique. Born in 1729 he was to change the pastiche ‘operas’ that were popular in the early 18th century, employing the new format of original music throughout. It had been touring Italian companies whose influences sparked the change where text became the servant of music. Monsigny had started out composing comic creations, but he was to introduce into his scores more serious, and even dramatic elements. That reached the peak of his career with Le Déserteur (The Deserter) in 1769, and it is the only one of his substantial input to have been passed down. Though he lived until 1817, he composed nothing during the last forty years fearing that it would impair his already failing sight. To a libretto by Michel Jean Sedaine, the story is of the young man, Alexis, who is deliberately led to believe his beloved Louise has wed her cousin, Bertrand. Heartbroken he deserts the army only to be captured and imprisoned. To please the audience of the time a comic scene of a drunken soldier in the cells is introduced, but Louise, on finding Alexis there, explains the misunderstanding. She sets out to seek a royal pardon, returning just in time to save him from the firing squad. Not a long work, here lasting just one and a half hours, it was the forerunner of conventional opera in the late 18th century. It is pleasingly attractive in the arias for Louise, charmingly sung by the Canadian soprano, Dominique Labelle. Alexis is given to a baritone taken by the suitably lightweight, William Sharp, while the second baritone, in the humorous part of Montauciel, is the big-voiced David Newman. We have no idea of the singing style fashionable in the 18th century, so we go to a ‘halfway house’ by having the sounds of a period instrument ensemble, Opera Lafayette. It’s a good one, Ryan Brown, its creator keeping the action moving with a good degree of impetus. A little too forward for the voices, the sound quality is otherwise attractive.

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