Anon lover

The ensemble and the pit in Haymarket Opera’s “L’Amant anonyme,” by Joseph Bologne.

Joseph Bologne (1745–99) was a man of remarkable and wide-ranging achievements. He was considered to be the greatest fencer in France, served as an officer of the King’s Bodyguard and was made a chevalier (knight), being known thereafter as the Chevalier Saint-Georges. Bologne excelled as a horseman and skater, and was reputed to be able to swim the Seine using only one arm. He was also a virtuoso violinist, conductor and composer of chamber works, symphonies and operas. Marie Antoinette attended his concerts and the two sometimes played music together. When he died, he was declared to have been the Voltaire of the musical arts.

Bologne achieved all this in spite of facing daily prejudice and scorn because he was Black. His father was a white Frenchman and his mother a Black African. 

Bologne’s only surviving opera, “L’Amant anonyme” (The Anonymous Lover) had its Midwest premiere this month at the new Sasha and Eugene Jarvis Opera Hall at DePaul University, 800 W. Belden Ave. Chicago’s Haymarket Opera Company has created a gorgeous production with stunning attention to detail. Hundreds of hours were spent editing the only surviving score of the opera, eliminating errors and inconsistencies. Haymarket made a new English translation, plus a carefully edited reduction of that translation for performance supertitles. Theatrical conventions of Bologne’s time were employed in the staging. Costumes and wigs were painstakingly matched to the composer’s setting. The backdrops were painted using historical techniques and a palette of period colors. The orchestra pit housed specialists in the Classical music of Bologne’s time.

All of this, combined with a cast of talented singers and dancers, results in an astonishingly authentic look at opera at the time of the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Haymarket has created what may well come to be seen as a definitive production of a work that might have been lost for the ages. 

Unquestionably the highlight of this production is the sumptuous sound of the leading lady. Soprano Nicole Cabell, known to Chicago opera fans since her days in Lyric Opera’s Ryan Center, and known to the rest of the global opera community since winning the 2005 BBC Singer of the World Competition, is a luminous Léontine, a widowed aristocrat who survived a failed marriage and is loathe to love again. Cabell’s mature sound and detail-oriented acting reveal to us a scarred woman who still has the capacity to love and find fulfillment, yet is tortured by the prospect of another betrayal. Her soaring high notes, plush as velvet, express both anxiety and hopeful anticipation. Her powerful narration of inner thoughts displays her character’s intelligence and deep-seated kindness. 

The title character, Valcour (“valiant heart”), chooses to woo her anonymously with sweet, charming letters, fearful that if he declares himself directly to Léontine he will not only fail to see her reciprocate, but will also see his cherished platonic friendship with her destroyed. Geoffrey Agpalo’s Valcour is introduced to us as patience personified: he has been sending loving missives for years and cannot bring himself to the point of acknowledging the letters, revealing his love and asking her to marry him.

Agpalo creates a proper suitor, respectful and caring in Léontine’s presence, but falls apart when she’s away from him. He sings with control, energy and a smoothness that is appealing. Bass-baritone David Govertsen is most amusing as Ophémon, Valcour’s friend and would-be wingman. He can see that the two of them are made for each other and does all he can to bring them together in spite of themselves. He sings with heft and humor, and lets the audience know that at least one person in this story can immediately see the big picture.

The Overture sets the scene, and Haymarket music director Craig Trompeter leads a performance that is frothy and fun, joyful and triumphant. The music gleams and enchants, in spite of some intonation problems in the first act and strongly noticeable horn flubs in the second.

There are four dancers who play a large role because there is an unusually long ballet segment in the first act, with several different dance settings. Choreographer Sarah Edgar creates pleasing dances for her talented troupe, yet the small amount of real estate on stage for the dancers sometimes limits their options so that at times the dancing seems small and delicate compared to the buoyancy of the music. Edgar is the director as well, and in that role she guides the singers in theatrical movements of the period that convincingly transport us to another place and time.

When it is all over, you are overwhelmed by the care, detail and expense that went into making this opera come to life. You are left a wee bit sad that with only three performances in a 160-seat theater, less than 500 people will have seen this spectacular production in final form. But Haymarket is teaming up with Cedille Records to make a full studio recording of “L’Amant anonyme,” including the spoken dialogue in French. When completed, this recording will be a permanent record of a fascinating and important part of musical history. Look for a Grammy nomination sometime down the road.

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