Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny studied initially at the Jesuit college in Saint-Omer, but the death of his father meant that he had to travel to Paris to seek paid employment. He continued his musical studies with a pupil of Rameau. His first opera-comique appeared in 1759 and led to further successes. His meeting with Michel-Jean Sedaine, Philidor's librettist, led to a collaboration which produced a string of operas. His final work appeared in 1777, after which he stopped composing as he was blind in one eye from a cataract and frightened of losing his sight in the other.
Monsigny's work is an interesting, if little known, stepping stone in the development of opera-comique. The genre originated in theatrical entertainments at fairs, which poked fun at the manners and high style of the tragédies lyriques produced at the Paris Opera. Opéra comique used spoken dialogue and characters replaced gods and goddesses with characters from daily life. Initially such pieces were simply plays with songs (comédies à ariettes) but under the influence of Pergolesi's La serva padrona librettist Michel-Jean Sedaine developed the genre and with Monsigny, produced new types of opéra comique where the music was more than just an ornament.
Le Déserteur dates from 1769 and continued in the repertoire into the 19th century; in 1843 Berlioz commented on the piece with approbation in his Journal des Débats.
When originally produced it would have had significant spoken dialogue. When Opera Lafayette presented the work live they performed it with an English narration. On this recording we are given the sung parts only, which allows us to appreciate Monsigny's music but does not give much of an idea of the structure. The CD booklet includes a detailed synopsis which describes the whole plot with the musical numbers cued in.
The plot itself is rather contrived and all stems from a rather cruel joke played on Alexis (William Sharp), who is in the army and is in love with Louise (Dominique Labelle). Alexis returns to his village to deliver a message to the Duchess who owns the village. At her instigation Louise, her father Jean Louis (Eugene Galvin), her aunt Marguerite (Claire Kuttler), a friend Jeannette (Ann Monoyios) and Bertrand (Tony Boutte) play a trick on Alexis and he apparently sees Louise getting married to Bertrand. In despair he does not object when soldiers accuse him of being a deserter. In prison a fellow prisoner, Montauciel (David Newman) tries to cheer him. Louise's explanation of the joke is little consolation as Alexis is going to be executed as a deserter. Louise rushes off to the King and finally gains a pardon for Alexis.
The result is charming with some nice variety in the music. Alexis is presented as a serious character and his music includes three lovely, sad airs for him in prison. He alternates airs with the prime comic character, Montauciel, in a way which shows Monsigny and Sedaine blending comedy and pathos. Montauciel has a delightful drunken air and at the end of act 2 he and Bertrand sing a pair of contrasting songs and then sing them simultaneously. This is preceded by a delightful fugal trio for Alexis, Louise and her father. Act 3 opens with a final comic air for Montauciel, in which he tries to spell out and read a message - which actually turns out to be an insult.
Jeannette gets an opening air which is full of double-entendre, but her duet with Alexis is in the dark key of F minor as befitting the subject matter; Jeanette is explaining to Alexis about Louise's wedding to Bertrand.
William Sharp has an attractive lyric baritone and makes a very personable Alexis, with Dominique Labelle as a charming Louise. Ann Monoyios could perhaps have made a little more of Jeannette’s aria with double entendres, but it is nicely sung. The remaining cast provide strong, characterful support. Ryan Brown and the Opera Lafayette Orchestra give the work a great deal of love and play with style.
My main complaint is that, without spoken dialogue, the airs just don’t have room to breathe. I would have far preferred to have the piece with highly truncated dialogue, rather than none at all.
This isn’t a master-work, but it is a fascinating and charming piece of operatic history. Ryan Brown and his forces resurrect the work with love, a missing link between tragédies lyriques and 19th century opéra comique.