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ClassicsOnline Home » MONSIGNY, P.-A.: Deserteur (Le) (Sharp, Labelle, Monoyios, Newman, Opera Lafayette, R. Brown)
Monsigny and Sedaine’s brilliant opéra-comique Le Déserteur, was an immediate and lasting success for its melodic charms and musical variety, its blend of comedy with moments of great sentiment and pathos, and its intellectual radicalism prefiguring the humanitarian ideas of the 19th century Romantics. This recording features the musical items only from this forerunner of the ‘rescue’ opera, in which the heroine Louise extricates her fiancé Alexis from prison and a death sentence. A written explanation of the action between the airs is provided in the booklet.
By Dominique Joucken
Pierre-Alexandre MONSIGNY (1729–1817)
Drame en Trois Actes
Libretto by Michel-Jean Sedaine (1719–1797)
Edition: Editions Choudens, Bernard Brossollet, Directeur général, with additional editing by Ryan Brown, used with permission.
French Translations by Sarah Paulu Boittin
Alexis – William Sharp, Baritone
Louise – Dominique Labelle, Soprano
Jeannette – Ann Monoyios, Soprano
Montauciel / Second Guard – David Newman, Baritone
Jean-Louis (Le Père) / Third Guard – Eugene Galvin, Bass-baritone
Bertrand / First Guard – Tony Boutté, Tenor
Courchemin – Darren Perry, Baritone
The Aunt Marguerite – Claire Kuttler, Soprano
The Jailer – Andrew Adelsberger, Bass
Claire Kuttler, Soprano • Andrew Adelsberger, Bass • Eric C. Black, Baritone • Adam Hall, Tenor
Opera Lafayette Orchestra
Ryan Brown, Conductor and Artistic Director
Sedaine and Monsigny and the Genre of Opéra Comique
Developed by theatres at the Paris fairs of St Germain and St Laurent, opéra comique provided an outlet for exposing to ridicule the Paris Opéra’s tragédies lyriques with their stories of gods, kings and heroes from antiquity. Opéra comique featured daily life characters (peasants, lawyers, doctors and merchants) in plots criticizing the fashionable modes of thought, and the failings and the extravagances of contemporary society. Originally the music used for the lyrics of opéra comique consisted of popular songs (vaudeville tunes). By the 1750s the lyrics accompanied original, rather simple tunes (ariettes), and vaudevilles were relegated to the final curtain song. Characteristically, these works were referred to as “comédies à ariettes” (comedies with songs). In the 1760s, spurred by the success of the Italian intermezzi such as Pergolesi’s La serva padrona, the very talented librettist, Michel-Jean Sedaine developed a dramaturgy that better integrated the music to the action and emphasized the sentimental aspects of his plots more than the comic ones. He found in Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny a composer whose melodic originality and innate dramatic sense was every bit his equal. Together, in producing Le Roi et le fermier (1762), Le Déserteur (1769), and Felix ou l’Enfant trouvé (1777), they created a new kind of opéra comique where music was no longer an ornament but was intimately bound to the conception and the unfolding of the drama. These works appealed directly to the heart of their audience and were successfully performed in France, Europe and the United States well into the nineteenth century. Berlioz much admired Monsigny’s Le Déserteur when he attended a performance in 1843. He wrote in the Journal des Débats of 12th November, 1843: “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.”
Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny (1729–1817)
Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny was born in Fauquembergues, a small town in the Pas-de-Calais between Saint-Omer and Montreuil, on 17th October, 1729. He was the first born of seven children of Nicolas Monsigny and Marie-Antoinette Dufresne. He studied at the Jesuit college of Saint-Omer where one of the Jesuits, Father Mollien, taught him how to play the violin. In 1748 the death of Monsigny’s father forced him to find a position to help his widowed mother and his siblings. He went to Paris and, in 1749, entered the service of Mr. de Saint-Julien, the receiver general of the French Clergy. However, he pursued his musical studies with Pietro Gianotti, a double-bass player of the Paris Opéra, student of Jean-Philippe Rameau and author of a Guide du compositeur published in 1759. His first opéra comique, Les Aveux indiscrets (The Indiscreet Confessions), was performed at the fair of Saint-Germain on 7th February, 1759. It was followed by two more successes: Le Maître en Droit (The Master in Law) in 1760 and Le Cadi dupé (The Duped Cadi) in 1761. At about that time he met Michel-Jean Sedaine, the librettist of Philidor, and in 1761 they produced a charming opéra comique in one act, On ne s’avise jamais de tout (One Can Never Be Aware of Everything). This was the beginning of a very fruitful collaboration which produced, in 1762, Le Roi et le fermier (The King and the Farmer) based on Robert Dodsley’s The King and the Miller of Mansfield; in 1764, Rose et Colas; and in 1766, Aline, Reine de Golconde. In 1768 Monsigny joined the household of the Duke of Orleans and in 1769 produced Le Déserteur, again on a libretto of Sedaine, which was an immediate and lasting success. Monsigny composed two more works on librettos by Sedaine: Le Faucon (The Falcon), in 1771, which was not very successful, and Felix ou l’Enfant trouvé, in 1777 which is arguably his best work. In between, in 1775, he produced his one opéra comique to a libretto by Charles Simon Favart, La Belle Arsène. Having lost the sight in one eye due to a cataract and fearing to become blind, he stopped composing for the remaining forty years of his life and died in Paris on 14th January, 1817.
Michel-Jean Sedaine (1719–1797)
Born in Paris on 2nd June, 1719, Michel-Jean Sedaine was also the first born of seven children, to Jean-Pierre Sedaine, a stone-mason and architect, and Marie-Jeanne Gourdain. Following in his father’s footsteps, Jean-Michel began his career as a stone-mason, and then became a foreman and assistant architect. In his leisure time he wrote poetry and published his first album in 1752. It was a success and a second edition was published in 1760. He soon turned to writing for the stage. His first opéra comique was Le Diable à quatre, 1758, after the ballad opera by Charles Coffey entitled The Devil to Pay, or The Wives Metapmorhos’d. He then produced three works to music by Philidor: Blaise le savetier (Blaise the Cobbler), 1759; Le Jardinier et son seigneur (The Gardener and his Lord and Master), 1761; and L’Huitre et les plaideurs (The Oyster and the Litigants), 1759/61, before meeting Monsigny with whom he collaborated on several very successful opéras comiques. Later, when Monsigny’s production slowed down owing to his loss of sight, Sedaine collaborated with Edgidio Duni (Les Sabots, 1768, and Thémire, 1770), Philidor one last time with Les Femmes vengées, 1775, and Grétry (Le Magnifique, 1773, Richard Coeurde-Lion, 1785, Le Comte d’Albert, 1786, Raoul Barbe-Bleue, 1789, and Guillaume Tell, 1791). Sedaine also had a successful career in the theatre with plays such as Le Philosophe sans le savoir, 1765, and La Gageure imprévue, 1768. The Revolution ruined him and he died in Paris on 17th May, 1797, leaving his wife and children penniless.
– Nizam Kettaneh
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.
– Ryan Brown
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: ).
– Nizam Kettaneh
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