Le Médecin Malgré Lui
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Le Médecin Malgré Lui

Opéra de Saint-Étienne

THOSE FAMILIAR WITH CHARLES GOUNOD as composer of grand operas might be surprised that the composer also wrote three opéras comiques, works that alternate spoken dialogue with musical numbers. The best known of these is Le Médecin Malgré Lui, based on Molière's celebrated play, which uses the playwright's verses to the letter in the spoken dialogue. (The conservative Comédie Française tried to get the work banned at the time of the Médecin’s premiere in 1858.) There will be a prestigious new production in Geneva next spring, but the Opéra de Saint-Étienne, with its special interest in the French repertoire, got there first. On October 16, the company presented a cast of young singers in a new production staged by Alain Terrat with the Saint-Étienne forces under the musical direction of Laurent Touche.

Sgnarelle is a drunken log cutter who beats his wife, Martine. Her vengeance is to pretend that her husband is a doctor—a profession that she says he will admit to only if beaten. Géronte's valets carry out her orders as they are searching for a doctor to treat their boss’s daughter Lucinde, who has become mute. Sgnarelle takes to his new profession, realizing there is money to be made. Lucinde regains her voice to complain that her arranged marriage is unacceptable—a situation put to rights when her real lover Léandre inherits a fortune, making for a happy ending. 

Terrat set the work around Jérôme Bourdin's revolving pergola, which served the rapidly changing scenes well, and was echoed in the design of Lucinde's sedan chair. Well-timed comic acting replaced any need for spectacular directorial effects in this simple, unadventurous production.

What is perhaps the most surprising element of the score is the carefully judged musical humor in the composer's teasing pastiches of seventeenth-century musical forms: witty parodies of courtly music are coupled with a Rossinian rhythmic dynamism in the ensembles, making the score a lighthearted gem. The Saint-Étienne orchestra played well under Touche, the chorus master here, and his expertise in the repertoire made for a smooth, coherent presentation of the work. Given the administrative turmoil at the opera house last season, this was a promising musical performance from all concerned.

As the waring couple, baritone Philippe-Nicolas Martin and mezzo Marie Gautrot opened the show with energetic panache. Martin's high baritone was ideally suited to the fake doctor's high lying music and his diction was exemplary, while Gautrot as his shrewish wife was not only vocally strong, but the most assured performer of the spoken dialog on October 16th. Jean-Christophe Born was delightfully amusing as the foppish lover Léandre, and made the most of his pirouetting antique couplets, although his voice sounds bound for heavier tenor duties. Good support came from mezzo Sophie Leleu's cheeky maid Jacqueline, bass Virgile Ancely's pompous Géronte, and Jennifer Courcier as the petulant Lucinde who rediscovered her sparky soubrette soprano to round off this charming evening. —Stephen J. Mudge 

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