Blaise le savetier

Philidor

Information

Blaise le savetier
(Blaise the Cobbler)
Opéra-comique in one act
Music by François-André Danican Philidor (1726-1795)
Libretto by Michel-Jean Sedaine
English translation by Jeremy Gray

First performance at the Opéra-Comique, Paris, 9 March 1759

The Deanery garden, Bampton, 20 & 21 July 2012
The Orangery Terrace, Westonbirt, 26 August 2012
Marsh Court, Hampshire, 15 September 2012
St John’s, Smith Square, 18 September 2012

Cast

Blaise, a cobbler

Robert Anthony Gardiner

Blaisine, his wife

Martene Grimson

Bailiff’s Clerks

Oliver Mercer

 

Oliver Dunn

Mrs Pinch, the landlady

Aoife O’Sullivan

Mr Pinch, the landlord

Oliver Mercer

 

Costumes

Fiona Hodges

Repetiteur

Paul Wingfield

Conductor

Andrew Griffiths

Director/Designer

Jeremy Gray

 

The Orchestra of Bampton Classical Opera (July, August)

 

CHROMA (September)

Synopsis

Blaise the cobbler

The cobbler Blaise is hardly in his wife’s good books.  Blaisine is in a right panic over the flood of bills, quite impossible to pay unless her husband is prepared to pick up his tools and get working.  But for Blaise the allures of the inn are more attractive to than soles and heels, and Blaisine’s tears are to no avail.  The unpaid rent is her biggest worry, and when the Bailiffs’ clerks arrive to start carting away their furniture, rapidly followed by Mrs Pinch, the landlord’s wife, the prospect is bleak.  At least their beautiful wardrobe seems too big to go on the cart.

But quick wits save the day.  Mr Pinch himself is quickly taken in by Blaisine’s assertion that she is a battered wife - her promise of amorous favour leads him to hand over a receipt for the unpaid rent.  Blaise’s sudden return means a hiding place must rapidly be found for the would-be errant landlord – and where else than in the wardrobe?  When Blaisine soon claims to have lost the key, poor Mr Pinch is not only trapped but cannot help but eavesdrop as his wife makes overtures to Blaise, soundly berating her husband in the process.  What future for happiness in the Pinch household when the wardrobe door finally obliges and opens?  Meanwhile laughter saves the day for Mr and Mrs B – and who knows, perhaps a trip to the inn is possible after all?

Reviews

... first class
Opera, September 2012

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... first class

Opera, September 2012

In her feature on Bampton in the July issue (pp804-8) Fiona Maddocks cited earlier praise in these pages – ‘a serious business with remarkable artistic standards’.  Quite so, which, allied to the welcome absence of formality of dress or show-off picnics and the beauty of the Deanery garden, sends it right to the top of my list of, well, ‘country-garden’ opera.

This delightful opéra-comique double bill of Philidor and Grétry respectively was both enjoyable and instructive.  How to tell a story through a mixture of words and music?  At a basic level, one way is to ensure that cues between the two are instantly picked up, which they were, one of the best features of Jeremy Gray’s amiable and unpretentious productions, given his own (ditto, ditto) translations.  Formal arias are few in number, so the action moves forward, briskly, seamlessly.  The Philidor tells of the impoverished cobbler and his wife outwitting their rapacious landlords, the Pinces; the Grétry is a case of mistaken identity, and you can’t hep feeling that Mozart must have heard it in Paris – the wrong person emerging from a closet and exactly the same rhythm in everyone’s reactions is perhaps a coincidence too far.

Musical standards were first-class; the company orchestra played quite beautifully for Andrew Griffiths in music that may look simple on the page (it isn’t) but which offers many opportunities to imaginative players and conductor.  The tented band was to one side of the stage area, and the singers were sometimes quite distant from physical abd confidence-building orchestral support, in which respect they all deserve praise for the security of their tuning and ensemble.  There was some excellent singing, especially from three fine sopranos. Aoife O’Sullivan doubled as the landlord’s wife in the Philidor and Léonore in the Grétry, absolutely secure and well-tuned in her show-off coloratura aria in the latter.  The same must be said of Martene grimson as the mistake-identity Isabelle and the cobbler’s wife.  Máire Flavin not only sang beautifully but was also richly comic as a savvy maid from across the Irish Sea in the Grétry.

Oliver Dunn was outstanding amongst the gentlemen as the heavy father in the Grétry, beautifully warm sound, clear diction and a confident stage manner.  Robert Anthony Gardiner as the cobbler made the most of the bravura aria in which he pretends to the landlord concealed in a cupboard that he is abusing his (absent) wife, supplying her pained reaction in falsetto – one of Philidor’s best numbers; he was also properly impulsive as Grétry’s jealous lover.  The tenor liver Mercer was both the landlord and the French officer Florival – towards the end of the evening he had the exquisite Serenade, but was placed (unnecessarily) some distance from his mandolin accompanist and, starting to tire, occasionally faltered in pitch. And why was he made to look so scruffy in Gray’s production, which updated the action to the 20th century?  Odd.  The Philidor was staged in period but, with its beady-eyed view of rapacious landlords, could have benefited from updating.  That might not have gone down well with Bampton Classical Opera’s patron, the local MP, one David Cameron.

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Rodney Milnes

 

…truly serious about comedy
Opera Today, October 2012

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…truly serious about comedy

Opera Today, October 2012

Two classic French comedies, one wardrobe…” was Bampton Classical Opera’s billing for this amusing double bill and, with typically wry wit, director Jeremy Gray duly placed a shabby-chic armoire centre-stage and made it the location of some Cherubino-Countess-style confusions and Goldoni-esque farce.

François-André Danican Philidor (1726-95) was a versatile chap: he is probably best known today as a chess master with a sophisticated set of opening moves to his name — the Philidor Defence. But, a member of a talented musical family, he also found employment at the Royal Chapel at Versailles (where he first made his mark by beating the older musicians at chess!) and was a leading exponent of the evolving genre of opéra comique. Indeed, his first opera Blaise le savetier might be judged to have marked the launch of opéra comique; moreover, both the operas in the programme seem to have anticipated (and perhaps inspired?) Mozart.

Blaise le savetier commences à la Figaro with a ‘domestic’. Young, handsome but penniless, Blaise and his vivacious wife Blaisine must battle not only against poverty but also against the predatory attentions of their rapacious landlords, Mr and Mrs Pinch. The latter are aptly named, for they squeeze every last penny and attempt to coax sexual favours from their young tenants.
Many of Philidor’s arias are quite short, interposed between the spoken dialogue, but they establish character deftly and several make effective use of the woodwind to add individuality. Martene Grimson (her real-life pregnancy adding a wry frisson to the drama!) was superb as Blaisine: her principal aria was tender and lyrical, and she acted convincingly and engagingly. As the landlord’s grasping wife, Aoife O’Sullivan brought sparkle and energy to the role. Robert Anthony Gardiner was a wily, relaxed Blaise, delivering the text crisply, and projecting clearly and with pleasing tone. He made the most of his virtuoso number, enjoying a duet with himself as he supplied his wife’s responses in resplendent falsetto counterfeit.

Philidor’s expertise at chess earned him the moniker ‘le subtil’, and dexterity, ingenuity and imagination are certainly all evident in the composer’s resourceful shaping of the numerous ensembles and dramatic use of harmony. The quintet was particularly zesty as the young couple presented a united force in the face of their hysterical landlady’s outburst; here, as throughout, Jeremy Gray’s direction was adroit, inventive but never fussy.

When André Ernest Modeste Grétry (1741-1813) appeared in Paris in 1767 he presented Philidor with a rival. (Apparently, Philidor took refuge in chess, playing blindfolded and taken on several opponents simultaneously.)

The personnel of Grétry’s L’amant jaloux (The Jealous Lover) are a familiar bunch, straight out of commedia dell’arte: an aging father, his eligible daughter, her guileful maid and two penniless suitors. The fast-paced and delightfully inconsequential plot embraces all the rudiments of commedia — mistaken identities, nocturnal hide-and-seek, with a mandolin serenade thrown in for good measure.

Don Lopez, a rich merchant of Cadiz, does not want his widowed daughter Léonore to re-marry, but she has other plans, being enamoured of the madly jealous Don Alonze. Alonze’s sister and Léonore’s friend, Isabelle, is being pursued by her tutor who wants to marry her. Florival drives away the tutor and Isabelle takes refuge with Léonore, whereupon Alonze mistakes her for a secret lover of Léonore Meanwhile Florival has fallen in love with the mysterious stranger he has rescued and arrives at the house; informed by the housekeeper that it is owned by Léonore, he assumes the latter must be the object of his affection and serenades her. He is overheard by Alonze who, in a furious rage, confronts Florival in the garden at night. Fortunately, they realise they are not rivals before they do each other any damage. A conveniently arriving inheritance allows Alonze to marry Léonore and, fulfilling the requirements the comic genre, Florival also marries Isabelle.

The soprano parts are technically demanding but all three singers coped admirably with the challenges. As Isabelle, Grimson’s coloratura was accurate and her intonation secure, while Máire Flavin was excellent as the feisty maid, Jacinthe. Tenor Oliver Mercer performed Florival’s serenade delicately and touchingly, and Oliver Dunn was strong and confident as Don Lopez. The translation by Gray and French is typically pithy, but at times some of the cast seemed not entirely comfortable in the spoken passages.

Seated behind the performers, the musicians of CHROMA performed with grace and lightness, conductor Andrew Griffiths thoughtfully highlighting the musical details in a manner which complemented the character and form of the vocal lines. Griffiths clearly appreciates the composers’ melodic inventiveness and the overall musico-dramatic structure of these works. The orchestral tone was pleasing, the intonation excellent, and the ensemble between band and singers consistent and secure.

Seeking out rarities and novelties has been a favourite, and greatly rewarding, Bampton pursuit since the company’s creation nearly twenty years ago. And, although dramatically rather slight, these two seldom performed French opéras-comiques of the eighteenth-century provided much melodious charm and humorous drollery, proving once again that Bampton Classical Opera can be relied upon to entertain with style and accomplishment: a company truly serious about comedy.

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Claire Seymour

 

…impressed…
The Spectator, 4 October 2012

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…impressed…

The Spectator, 4 October 2012

I’m not a great fan of precursors, or what Tovey called, in a once-famous expression, Interesting Historical Figures. Bampton Opera, however, is, and I went to its production of short operas by two IHFs at St John’s Smith Square with an open mind. The first work, by Philidor, didn’t do much for me, but the second, by Grétry, is charming and at about 80 minutes doesn’t outstay its welcome. Philidor’s Blaise the Cobbler is a predictable and laborious comedy about a couple who can’t pay the rent, and manage to lock the importunate landlord in a large cupboard. It mainly consists of short arias, written in a lingua franca style of the late 1750s, and gave its singers a chance to warm up for their larger roles in Grétry’s The Jealous Lover. The same sets were used for both pieces, and, as I’ve said, some of the same singers, young professionals of whom the most notable is Robert Anthony Gardiner, a tenor who acts as well as he sings; and Martene Grimson, a highly experienced artist with an appealing soubrettish voice. St John’s is ideal for listeners to broadcast concerts, which alas it is rarely used for any longer; but if you’re there voices tend to acquire a halo, which makes spoken dialogue hard to follow. Grétry’s pleasant idiom and ready melodic charm (Beecham adored him) are employed in this opera to dramatise a story that is startlingly like The Marriage of Figaro in respect of a surprise in who comes out of the closet, in the literal sense, and even in the pert music which accompanies that. Grétry’s strength seems to be in ensembles, the more the merrier, and I was impressed enough by this performance to want to investigate him further.

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Michael Tanner

 

a perennial credit to Bampton’s casting
The Oxford Times, July 2012

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a perennial credit to Bampton’s casting

The Oxford Times, July 2012

Two evenings of perfect weather were Bampton Classical Opera’s reward for 20 years’ work unearthing 18th-century musical jewels (of various caratage), as summer finally arrived last weekend and the loyal audience was transported back to days of chirruping swifts accompanying the opera as the sun set on the golden church spire — one of the loveliest settings I know. This little company, which puts on a couple of shows in the idyllic Deanery garden in West Oxfordshire each summer, now also makes regular appearances at the Buxton Festival, the country’s most likeable and quirky summer opera jamboree.

And it explores a surprisingly neglected backwater: the question of what happened between Handel and Mozart — a great leap in sensibility and practice in a very short time — certainly rewards investigation. And having thoroughly excavated the Italian (and Spanish, and Portuguese) end of the market, Bampton has now turned its attention to the French.

The double bill of two short works by Philidor and Grétry were a glimpse into what kept ancien régime aristos entertained before they lost their heads. The two little anecdotes both involved that old standby of hiding in wardrobes and were both rather slender (one relying entirely on a misunderstanding of someone’s name), but there was lots to enjoy. The Philidor (Blaise le savetier, 1759) has a sweet rustic bounce and fresh momentum, with French curlicues decorating an Italian musical model, and was performed with wit and spirit by Martene Grimson and Robert Anthony Gardiner: both pieces rely on extended dialogue, not always opera singers’ strong suit, but carried off here with real actorly panache and charm. Grétry — who re-invented opéra comique in the way Gluck did tragedy — was more ambitious in L’amant jaloux (1778), loading on the local Spanish colour with a lovely oboe-and-pizzicato tune in the overture which reappears as a mandolin serenade at the crucial moment. Ensembles and arias ranging from jaunty to sentimental, livened up with cute wind-instrument twiddles, and finally, with a lovers’ duet, made you realise why setting words to music can go far beyond dialogue — the only way that opera can justify itself. Máire Flavin performed the regulation lippy maid with feisty charm; Aoife O’Sullivan, Oliver Mercer and Oliver Dunn joined Grimson and Gardiner to make up the lively ensemble.
As ever, this was a cast of young singers at the forefront of their generation, a perennial credit to Bampton’s casting; Andrew Griffiths kept the thing moving — and band and singers together in what is not the easiest layout — and Jeremy Gray delivered a trademark staging of pleasantly zany silliness and inspiration.

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Robert Thicknesse

 

What the audience said

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What the audience said

My party adored your production and could find no fault at all with it. We thought the standard of the singers was wonderfully high; their acting ability was splendid; the sets were amusing and successful; the acoustic was astonishingly good; the orchestra was excellent; the front of house staff were all friendly and helpful.

What a delightful atmosphere you do create in Bampton. we were thrilled that the performance was held outside, having resigned ourselves to the idea that it might not be.

We went to the pre performance talk, which was fascinating. I find it a pure delight to be exposed to operas which do not make it to the general repertoire. I also think it is lovely that the ticket prices make opera like this affordable to almost anyone.

I was so grateful for the effort and imagination and immense time devoted to the opera by yourselves and by your singers. You make a difference in the world by offering what you do.

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Programme notes

Ariettes and pawns
Julian Rushton

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Ariettes and pawns

François-André Danican Philidor (1726-95) was born into a musical family, child of his father’s second wife and thus half-brother to another composer, Anne Danican, who founded the Concert Spirituel in Paris. Philidor was trained in the Royal Chapel at Versailles, and first made his mark by beating the older musicians at chess. He was probably the strongest player of his time, and became known internationally through his book ‘Analysis of the Game of Chess’, published in 1749. After some professional touring, he returned to Paris having become a devotee of modern Italian music. This did not go down well at Versailles, nor in the mid-1750s was such music yet fully accepted in the ‘Académie royale de musique’, as the main opera house was called (despite its not being in any usual sense an academy). The Académie had a monopoly on opera sung throughout, so Philidor turned to the Opéra comique, which took place mainly in fringe theatres (théâtres de la foire). His first work there was collaborative; the tradition was that the ‘comédie mêlées d’ariettes’ (musical comedy) used familiar tunes parodied with new words and with simple accompaniments, like English ballad opera. In due course, and following the arrival of an Italian, Duni, on the scene, Philidor began to compose new ‘ariettes’, and the opéra comique grew rapidly in musical sophistication to the point where it threatened the hegemony of the Académie royale itself.

Blaise le savetier was the first opera Philidor composed without a collaborator, and it was published as Opus 1 in 1759 with a dedication to nobleman. Like Mozart’s Figaro, it starts with a domestic argument extending into a couple of duets, although the second has the added complication of a pair of bailiffs listing their goods and chattels; it is thus an unusual sort of quartet. The couple unite in the face of the screaming landlady, for a quintet. About half the work consists of ensembles; Philidor had no peer in composing such pieces. In later works he brought the number of voices up to seven (even Mozart stopped at six), combining them in acceptable harmony while retaining individual characterization. Some of the arias are very short, and simply accompanied by strings, violins doubling the voice. But others are of greater length and elaboration, in the modern Italian style, and begin to show independent interest for the woodwind. At least, they would have seemed Italianate at the time. To us Philidor may sound quintessentially French, but as the historian Charles Burney put it, he drank ‘hard at the Italian fountain’. Burney also refers to Philidor’s ‘Italian plunder’, and indeed he was accused of barely disguised plagiarism of Italian models, and of Gluck’s Orfeo, which was published in Paris in 1763 (Philidor kindly corrected the proofs). But Philidor was equipped with the accurate and retentive memory essential to a chess master, and it is likely that he was unaware that he was remembering, rather than inventing, these passages – none of them, incidentally in Blaise le savetier.

For nearly ten years, Philidor was a dominant force in Opéra comique, alongside Duni and Monsigny. Philidor’s career reached a double climax, first with an adaptation of Fielding’s Tom Jones (1765), with its hunting song, septet, unaccompanied quartet of drinkers, and a fine solo scene for the heroine that approaches the style of opera seria. Then in 1767 he took the logical step and produced a path-breaking ‘tragic’ opera, Ernelinde, which was performed at the Académie royale and anticipated many of the reforms associated with Gluck. The following year a new rival, Grétry, appeared in Paris, and Philidor, musically side-lined, concentrated more of his energy on playing chess for money – usually against odds, to give the wealthy opposition a chance. He also played blindfold and simultaneous games, despite the advice of his friend Diderot, founder of the great Encyclopaedia, who thought such antics would drive him insane. The city with most people eager to part with their money by being beaten at chess was of course London, and during increasingly long residencies in Britain Philidor also composed a remarkable Latin cantata, Carmen saeculare, on poetry by Horace. He continued to move in intellectual circles, although he would never have been considered an intellectual himself, as his high intelligence found its only outlets in music and chess. He was in England during the revolutionary upheaval, and was declared an émigré; the ban on returning to France was lifted just too late, and he died in London separated from his family.

Julian Rushton

Julian Rushton is Emeritus Professor of Music at the University of Leeds, and has published extensively on operatic topics, and on Gluck, Philidor, Mozart, Berlioz, Elgar, and others.

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Production Photos