Another Night at the Opera

New Esterházy Expounds 18th-c. Home Entertainment

You have just seen a magnificent opera on the big stage, and can’t wait to hear that one aria again, or share it with your friend who couldn’t go. In this day and age, YouTube and Spotify are never far away, or you could play an MP3 or CD, and you’re set. But in the 18th century, the only way to re-live the music at home was by playing it on the piano (four-hands) or with a string quartet of friends and family.

The New Esterházy Quartet, voted “Best Chamber Music Performers” by San Francisco Classical Voice in 2015, started showing Bay Area audiences this popular 18th century home entertainment two years ago, with highlights from Mozart’s operas The Marriage of Figaro and The Abduction from the Seraglio. Last season they presented two versions of Don Giovanni, one by Mozart and one by Gazzaniga. Next weekend, February 17–19, the quartet presents overtures and arias from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte and Philidor’s Les Femmes Vengées (Avenged Women). The Cosi fan tutte arrangements are from the 18th century, the arrangements of the Philidor opera are by the quartet’s cellist William Skeen.

Performances will take place in Berkeley, San Francisco, and Palo Alto. See details at the end of this article.

The pairing of these two operas is inspired by a 2014 production of Opera Lafayette of Washington, D.C., whose founder and artistic director Ryan Brown also wrote these very enlightening program notes.

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Watching from the East Coast, and listening whenever possible, I’ve greatly enjoyed the New Esterházy Quartet’s exploration of late 18th century quartets. It often complements Opera Lafayette’s own inquiries. “Who inspired Mozart and Beethoven?” is a question that has fascinated many of us, and both the string quartet and opera repertory give clues to some of the knowable answers. Opera Lafayette has explored, in particular, many of the overlooked French precedents for these monumental composers’ works. In the process, of course, we’ve found many works that inspire us whether or not they are considered in the light of Mozart and Beethoven.  Nonetheless, it remains tempting to present these works of the petits maîtres in the context of les grands. OL did so in 2014 when it paired Philidor & Sedaine’s Les Femmes Vengées with Mozart & Da Ponte’s Cosi fan tutte. The NEQ does so again for these performances, but using the string quartet to illuminate opera’s vocal world.

The pairing was inspired by the plot of Les Femmes Vengées; as in Cosi, two men must witness and endure their female loves being wooed by others, coming to a more mature understanding of their relations in the process. Since Les Femmes Vengées was performed several times in Paris while Mozart was visiting there, it is entirely possible that Mozart saw and heard it and that it may have influenced Cosi, though this has not been definitively established. One of the most interesting stage constructs which no doubt had an influence on the structure of the music was Sedaine’s specification for the set itself—two private rooms on either side of a central dining room, set up in such a way that the audience can see and hear the characters in all the rooms, but the characters in the central room do not know who is listening in on them from the side. This makes for some very interesting ensembles with four or six characters divided into groups of two. Philidor, applying his boyhood musical training in counterpoint at the Chapelle Royale to the new popular genre of opéra-comique, responded brilliantly and thus may have offered Mozart a precedent for his own masterful operatic ensembles.

That said, arias are the bread and butter of opera, and William Skeen of the NEQ has transcribed the Overture and three beautiful and varied numbers from Les Femmes Vengées to precede Cosi.  In the first, Un petit coup d’oeil (“a little glance”), the Despina-like character, Madame Riss, looks in the mirror to make sure she is irresistibly attractive as she prepares to receive Monsieur Le Président and Monsieur Lek, two married men she knows to be interested in an evening’s dalliance while her husband is away.  In the second, Quand Paris sur le Mont Ida (“when Paris on Mount Ida”), Monsieur Riss flatters and woos Madame La Présidente and Madame Lek in an agreed upon ploy to enrage their guilty husbands hiding in the next room, comparing himself to Paris having to choose between three goddesses, but more favorably, as he is loved by all three. In the third aria, De la coquette volage (“of the flighty coquette”), the apparent moral hold-out, or Fiordiligi-like character, Madame La Présidente, suggests she is not as easily seduced as her companion, Madame Lek (only, of course, to give in during the next scene, making sure to teach her own smug husband a lesson). Whether writing a coy, lyric, or virtuoso melody, Philidor proves himself a maître, petit ou grand, who provides ingenious musical and theatrical pleasure.

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Performances will take place at 8:00 p.m., Friday, February 17, at the Hillside Club in Berkeley, 4:00 p.m., Saturday, February 18, at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco; and 4:00 p.m., Sunday, February 19, at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Palo Alto. For more information, phone 415-520-0611 or visit