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ClassicsOnline Home » MONSIGNY, P.-A.: Roi et le fermier (Le) (The King and the Farmer) [Comic Opera] (Opera Lafayette, Brown)
Le Roi et le fermier made Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny famous in France and beyond. Set in an evocative and at times stormy Sherwood Forest it tells of a King’s encounter with a humble farmer, blending comedy with serious issues. Its numerous innovations foreshadow Romanticism, making it a milestone in operatic history, with librettist Michel-Jean Sedaine admiring Monsigny’s daring in taking “the risk of setting a new genre to music”. “This production should be noted and remembered in the annals of Versailles, for the intelligence of its staging, the beauty of its sets, and its high musical quality.” (Opéra Magazine)
Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny (1729–1817)
Le Roi et le fermier (1762)
Opéra-comique en trois actes
Libretto by Michel-Jean Sedaine (1719–1797)
Edition: Opera Lafayette
Le Roi – Thomas Michael Allen, Tenor
Richard (le fermier) – William Sharp, Baritone
Jenny – Dominique Labelle, Soprano
Rustaut – Thomas Dolié, Baritone
Lurewel – Jeffrey Thompson, Tenor
La Mère – Delores Ziegler, Mezzo-soprano
Betsy – Yulia Van Doren, Soprano
Charlot – David Newman, Baritone
Le Courtisan – Tony Boutté, Tenor
Opera Lafayette Orchestra
Ryan Brown, Conductor and Artistic Director
Opera Lafayette’s work over the last several seasons has focused in great part on the revival of 18th-century opéra-comique, and specifically the rediscovery of the works of Monsigny (Le Déserteur), Philidor (Sancho Pança), and Grétry (Le Magnifique). In choosing to present the modern premiere of Monsigny’s Le Roi et le fermier in the US and in France at the Opéra Royal in Versailles, we were, as always, looking for a work of beauty and variety, but also for an opera of historical importance, and one with theatrical qualities that would be enhanced by a full staging. As an opéra-comique blending comedy with a sober treatment of serious issues, Le Roi et le fermier was a seminal prototype of the lyric drama. With a storm and a nighttime scene playing integral roles in the opera’s plot, nature takes on a dramatic role, while also providing a visually evocative backdrop for the first two acts of the story.
To our delighted surprise, Château de Versailles was able to provide the restored sets from Marie Antoinette’s 1780 performances at the Théâtre de la Reine for our performances at the Opéra Royal. They were, for the first two acts, a forest scene, and for the third act, a farmhouse, or chaumière.
In further considering how to present this wonderful opéra-comique in two countries with a mixed cast of French and American artists, we asked our actors/directors, Didier Rousselet and Monica Neagoy, to help devise a theatrical solution that would allow us to present the dialogue in French. This was done through a combination of narration and cuts in the dialogue. As Mr Kettaneh’s notes below describe, the work includes a politically significant conversation in Act 3 between Richard and Le Roi, but a great innovative strength of the work is Monsigny’s musical imagination and the seamless integration of his music into the story. The music is extraordinarily varied and fits the situations perfectly, carries the story forward for the listener, and points the way to lyric drama in the future.
Le Roi et le fermier
Melchior Grimm, author of the Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique (letters written twice a month and dispatched to various German courts, keeping the European aristocracy abreast of current cultural developments in Paris), wrote that the success of the opéras-comiques performed in the theaters of the fairs of Saint Germain and Saint Laurent “had the good effect…of turning away the public from the heavy monotony of French opera.” In fact, the public not only deserted the Académie royale de musique, as the Paris Opera was then called, but it also deserted the other two royally subsidized theaters, the Comédie italienne and the Comédie française. In February 1762, the government gave in to the grievances of its theater directors and, no doubt also thinking “if you can’t beat them, join them,” banned the theaters of the fairs, but integrated their five best performers into the troupe of the Comédie italienne.
It is interesting to note that the only opéra-comique that the not-very-musically-inclined king Louis XV enjoyed was On ne s’avise jamais de tout by Monsigny and Sedaine (1761). It may not have been purely coincidental that the five actors integrated into the troupe of the Comédie italienne were the original performers of that work at the theaters of the fairs. The success of this early period of opéras-comiques was essentially due to three composers, Duni, Philidor and Monsigny, and to their librettists, chiefly Michel-Jean Sedaine. Their continued success at the Comédie italienne eclipsed the Italian repertoire. By 1780, the Italian troupe of the Comédie italienne had been disbanded, and the Comédie italienne had effectively become the Opéra Comique.
Monsigny’s first opéra-comique performed at the Comédie italienne after the merger was Le Roi et le fermier to a libretto by Sedaine that had been rejected by Philidor. Sedaine based his libretto on an English play by Robert Dodsley (1704–1764), The King and the Miller of Mansfield (1737), translated into French by Claude-Pierre Patu (1729–1757) and published in 1756. The choice of an English model was not unusual for Sedaine. He was very familiar with Patu’s published translations of English plays and had already used Patu’s translation of Charles Coffey’s ballad opera, The Devil to Pay, or The Wives Metamorphos’d (1731), for his libretto of the opéra-comique Le Diable à quatre, set to music by Philidor and Laruette in 1756. He also was a patron of several salons of the Paris aristocracy, which at that time was swept up by a fashion for all things English. In 1745/46, Pierre-Antoine de La Place (1707–1793) had published his translations of Shakespeare’s plays. Articles adversely comparing the plays of Corneille to those of Shakespeare, published in the Journal encyclopédique of October 1760, prompted Voltaire, a former anglophile himself, to come to the defense of French classical theater.
Actually, this fad for all things English had a political dimension. It was a reaction to the government’s opposition to Britain in the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763). With the two treaties of Versailles (1756 and 1757), France had renounced its two-century long policy of opposition to the Habsburg monarchy and had signed an alliance with Austria, which was further strengthened later by the wedding of the grand-son of Louis XV, the future King Louis XVI, with Marie-Antoinette, daughter of the Austrian Empress Maria-Theresa.
This change of alliances was very unpopular throughout the nation, particularly among the intelligentsia grouped around the encyclopaedists. They considered the British monarchical system more liberal than France’s absolute monarchy. They also sought to undermine the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in matters of state, because they believed the Church encouraged the alliance of the two Catholic realms, thereby embroiling France in a disastrous war that would cost it most of its Indian colonies, Canada, the Mississippi Valley, New Orleans and several Caribbean islands.
Conscious of the potentially subversive nature of his libretto for Le Roi et le fermier, Sedaine tried in its preface to justify himself: “Led by the scene and by the location where it is taking place, and by the original text in English which I have used extensively, I had placed in my farmer’s mouth hard truths about all courts, and of all times, but a few persons, maybe as overzealous as I would have been in their stead, have sought to find them offensive. They had this scene changed, and it is performed as modified.” Nevertheless, the dialogue in Act III, Scene 10 between the King and Richard, wherein the latter puts in doubt the King’s assertion that, “A king, who is good, has faithful friends and trustworthy ministers,” can be read as a sly criticism of Louis XV’s reliance on his ministers who were considered responsible for the change in foreign policy and its disastrous consequences.¹
Sedaine’s libretto is innovative not only for its political implications but also for the way in which it enables the music to be integrated with the drama. In the last scene of Act I a storm arises, interrupting the duo of Richard and Jenny and forcing them to take shelter. The storm serves as musical interlude between the acts and is heard subsiding during the opening duo of Act II. Sedaine provides opportunities for Monsigny to reveal the inner life of his characters through music: Richard sings in his opening ariette (Act I, Scene 1) in an agitated mood, but Sedaine withholds until Scene 4 the cause of his agitation and follows that revelation with an ariette for Richard marked “amoroso” in the score. Such musical depiction of a character through his emotions was a novel approach in opéra-comique. Sedaine, working closely with the composer, provided opportunities for the music to enhance the dramatic content. Examples include the finale of Act II, where Lurewel and the courtesan are arrested by the gamekeepers (foreshadowing the trio that ends Act I of Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio) and the septet in Act III, when the identity of the King is revealed. Another lovely touch is the trio of women in Act III, each singing a different song while spinning or sewing .
The music of Monsigny is every bit as imaginative as Sedaine’s libretto. The overture (a Presto in E flat major followed by an Andante Allegretto in C minor) leads immediately to Richard’s opening ariette, Je ne sais à quoi me résoudre , an Allegro also in E flat major. In so doing, Monsigny structurally links the two-movement overture to Richard’s ariette, forming a three-part portrait of the main character. For his ariettes, Monsigny uses a variety of forms for expressive effect. Jenny’s ariette, Ce que je dis est la vérité mêmeI , is in a very strict da capo form to underline the sincerity of the young woman. The jealousy of Richard in his arietta, D’elle-même, et sans effort , is expressed in a rondeau form, while the naiveté and simplicity of Betsy in her ariette, Il regardait mon bouquet , is expressed in a modified strophic form. Furthermore, Monsigny devises complex structures when a character narrates an action in an arietta, and he uses the orchestra to illustrate it with telling motifs, such as in Jenny’s ariette, Le Milord m’offre des richesses . The role of nature (the darkness of the night, the storm, the inhospitable forest) as depicted by the music is a new musico-dramatic effect that will culminate in the scene in the Wolf’s Glen in Weber’s Der Freischutz (1821).
Sedaine was very conscious that he was breaking away from the old opéra-comique librettos in writing this particular one and was so appreciative of Monsigny’s willingness to follow him in this new path that he paid him a compliment in his preface, writing: “Never has a good or bad work had so much difficulty in reaching the stage…I had to find a great artist, a capable musician, who would have some confidence in me: that is, a friend who would be willing to take the risk of setting a new genre in music.”
At the first performance of Le Roi et le fermier on November 22, 1762, the public was surprised by the many novelties of the work, and its reception was mixed. However, at subsequent performances, audience appreciation grew rapidly, leading a contemporary chronicler to write that: “It has had over two hundred performances, and the Comedians assure that it has brought more than twenty thousand francs to MM. Sedaine and Monsigny.” A year later, it was performed in French in Vienna. Count Durazzo (1717–1794), the director of the imperial theaters of Vienna, wrote to Simon Favart (1710–1792), an opéra-comique librettist and director at the Comédie italienne: “Never has an opéra-comique met greater success in this country.” In 1776, it was performed in St Petersburg before the empress Catherine II and her entourage by the troupe of the cadets of the military school. On August 1, 1780, Le Roi et le fermier was the first spectacle performed by Marie-Antoinette and her chosen entourage. Marie-Antoinette played the role of Jenny. The Comte d’Artois (future King Charles X) played Rustaut. The public was restricted to the King and the royal princes and princesses without members of their retinue. Marie-Antoinette performed in her theater irregularly between 1780 and 1783. She played once more and for the last time on August 19, 1785. Luckily, the sets for Le Roi et le fermier have survived the destruction of time and have been used, after necessary restorations, for Opera Lafayette’s performances in the royal theater of Versailles.
The French Revolution brought a change in public taste and Monsigny’s works were less frequently performed. However in 1797, the artists of the Opéra Comique, knowing that Monsigny was in ill health and destitute, offered him a pension of 2,400 pounds. In reporting this matter, Le Journal de Paris of August 15, 1798, described Monsigny as “The citoyen Monsigny, distinguished musician, author of Le Roi et le fermier and of many other lovely works, etc.” Eight years later the work was revived at the Opéra Comique. Such was its success that it brought the impoverished Monsigny a much needed additional 2,000 francs pension.
Perhaps the composers Etienne Nicolas Méhul (1763–1817) and Paul Dukas (1865–1935) have best expressed the qualities of Monsigny’s music. The former expressed it in a telling comparison: “There is between his [Monsigny’s] songs and the verses of the good La Fontaine striking similarities. Their works display an equal degree of naturalness, grace, naiveté and sometimes voluntary carelessness which is so surprising that it must for that very reason be preferred to a cold correctness.” The latter wrote in La Revue Hebdomadaire of July 22, 1893, “Monsigny was a man of an exceptionally impressionable and emotive nature, at least among the musicians. Of all the composers of our country, he is probably the first who had the gift of true, human emotion, of communicative expression and of the right feeling…The frail melodies of Monsigny are no doubt nothing more than melodies, but of such moving inspiration, of such sincere accent, of such natural and charming shape that one freely ignores their feeble harmonic support and one forgives this instinctive musician, who dreamt them up, his unaffected artistry, in favor of the pleasure that he provides us.”
Act I: Sherwood Forest in late afternoon. Richard, a farmer in charge of the royal forest of Sherwood, is distraught and confused (Je ne sais à quoi me résoudre ). His gamekeepers meet him to receive instructions. In a bad temper, Richard questions them about the whereabouts of the King and his hunting party. Wishing to see the King, Richard remarks that the King is hunting very late, that the wind is picking up and that a storm could well be coming over from Mansfield. Betsy, Richard’s young sister, interrupts him, but he abruptly cuts her short, inciting her to leave in tears. Richard instructs his men to be watchful, because poachers are likely to take advantage of the King’s hunting party to poach his game during the night. The men are to arrest any poachers that they find and bring them to Richard. Rustaut, one of the gamekeepers, asks Richard why he is in such a bad temper. Richard confides to Rustaut that Lord Lurewel has abducted his beloved Jenny and may have seduced her. Rustaut advises him not to fall in love, which only brings worries and cares, and that a good bottle of wine is much worthier than a mistress (Ami, laisse là la tendresse ). Richard dismisses him and waivers between his love for Jenny and his perplexity at her apparent faithlessness (D’elle-même et sans effort ). Betsy returns with news of Jenny, but Richard abruptly dismisses her again; she cries while Richard asks forgiveness for his bad temper (Non, non, vous ne m’avez jamais traitée ainsi ). Jenny enters and recounts how Lord Lurewel captured her and her entire herd of sheep, tried in vain to seduce her by offering her his riches, then locked her up in a room of his castle, from which she escaped by using the curtains to make a rope with which to slide out of the window (Le Milord m’offre des richesses ). Richard is relieved that Jenny has remained faithful. Jenny gently reproaches him for his lack of trust, while assuring him that she has told the truth (Ce que je dis est la vérité ). They sing a duo (Ah ! Richard. Ah ! Mon cher ami ) that expresses their happiness to be together again, but are interrupted by the approaching storm. They hear the horns of the King’s hunting party. Betsy urges them to take shelter before the storm bursts on them. The entre’acte depicts the passing of the storm. A gunshot is heard.
Act II: Sherwood Forest at night. The two gamekeepers, Rustaut and Charlot, wrestle with each other in the dark, each one believing that he has caught the poacher who fired the shotgun (Tu résistes, tu te défends? ). Realizing their error, they leave in search of the poacher. The King staggers in, separated from his hunting party. His horse having died under him, he is lost and on foot. He sings an ariette (Dans les combats ), reflecting how combats inspire him to courage, while the darkness, profound silence and vastness of the forest bring worry to his heart. Richard, having heard the king, questions him. The King pretends to be one of his followers who has strayed from the King’s hunting party and has lost his way. Richard offers him hospitality for the night, leading him to his farmhouse. Lord Lurewel and a courtier enter the stage. They have also lost the King’s hunting party. They heard a voice which they thought might be the king’s (Ah, ciel ! Ah, si c’était le roi ! ). Reassured that they are alone, Lurewel tells his courtier how he captured Jenny (Un fin chasseur qui suit ). The gamekeepers spot Lurewel and the courtier, whom they believe to be poachers. They surprise and arrest them (Avance, suis moi ). The entre’acte depicts the hunt.
Act III: In Richard’s farmhouse. Richard’s mother and Jenny are spinning and sewing; Betsy is arranging a flower bouquet; all three sing songs, while waiting for Richard’s return (Lorsque j’ai mon tablier blanc ). Richard enters with the King, whom he presents as a member of the King’s retinue who has lost his way and is seeking hospitality for the night. Richard introduces Jenny to the King and tells him the grief Lord Lurewel has caused them. The King promises that justice will be served. Richard asks his mother to prepare a meal for their guest. The mother, excited to have the honor of a visit from such a nobleman, fusses around him as she brings out the food (Monsieur, monsieur ). While The King and Richard eat their meal in the adjoining room, Jenny and Betsy rejoice over the King’s promise to help them. The mother cautions them that quick promises are often as quickly forgotten (Ah ! Ma tante ). Richard asks his Mother and Betsy to keep company with the King, while Richard goes to the cellar to fetch wine. Jenny refuses to follow him there, staying behind. Betsy returns and tells Jenny that she gave the bouquet of flowers that she had assembled to the King and pinned it on his suit. In return, the King gave her gold coins. She thanked him with a kiss, for which she received a slap on the face as a rebuke from her mother, but the King spoke in her defense to her mother (Il regardait mon bouquet ). Betsy gives the gold to Jenny so that she can buy herself a new herd of sheep as her dowry. Richard returns from the cellar. Jenny tries unsuccessfully to engage in a conversation with him before he goes to the King (Un instant/Il m’attend ). The King enters and has a conversation with Richard, who tells him that kings have a difficult time knowing the truth, because they are surrounded by courtiers who often have a different agenda. The King is surprised by Richard’s wisdom. Jenny invites the King to attend her wedding to Richard. He gladly accepts. Jenny sings a song about the pleasure of life in the country (Que le soleil dans la plaine ). Richard expresses the same feelings in another song (Ce n’est qu’ici, ce n’est qu’au village ). Jenny and Richard invite the King to sing a song as well. He agrees, singing an ariette from an opera in which a governor tells a prince that he can reach the highest degree of happiness by dispensing from his hands all that his people expect from him (Le Bonheur est de le répandre ). Betsy announces that the gamekeepers are coming in with thieves whom they have arrested. Richard is surprised to see Lurewel, who berates him for the behavior of his gamekeepers. Richard is about to tell Lurewel about Jenny, when Lurewel interrupts him to assert emphatically that Jenny will not leave his castle until such time as he chooses and berates Richard for wanting to marry her. The King stands up from his chair; the Courtier, seeing him, exclaims, “Ah! Here is the King.” All express their surprise in a septet (Le Roi, le Roi ). The King confronts Lord Lurewel, who admits his wrongdoing. The King banishes him from his presence and, turning to Richard, gives him his sword as a sign of ennoblement. The King declares that he will attend the wedding and take care of Jenny’s dowry. All sing of their happiness (Que du ciel la bonté suprême ).
¹ This spoken dialogue is omitted from this recording but an English translation can be accessed at www.naxos.com/libretti/660322.htm
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MONSIGNY, P.-A.: Roi et le fermier (Le) (The King ...