La Double Coquette brings light to Paris and beyond 

Out of the Darkness

click to enlarge coquette.jpg

Marc Domage

On Fri. Nov. 13, 2015, a series of coordinated terrorist attacks struck Paris, France, including a bombing at the Bataclan Theatre. That explosion killed 89 people. In all, the Paris terrorist attacks took 130 lives.

Three days later, on Mon. Nov. 16, 2015, Charleston resident Nicole Taney watched the rehearsal generale for the opera La Double Coquette at a theater in Paris.

"My feeling was, there was a sense of 'We'll go on, we will not let this define us,'" says Taney, Spoleto's director of artistic planning and operations. When we spoke on a Sunday afternoon Taney was in the Spoleto office, coordinating a visa for the cast of La Double Coquette — a tedious task that seems a far cry from the horrors she saw in the city of lights just six months ago.

La Double Coquette, a 75-minute comedic opera first performed in Dec. 2014, tells the story of a double-crossing cross dresser who tries to win back her lover from the arms of a young seductress. The production is a revision of Antoine Davergne's 1753 opera, La Coquette trompee, with 32 supplements, asides, codas, and new harmonies added by Gerard Pesson. The original libretto, by Charles-Simon Favart, was revised by Pierre Alferi, in a twist that the performance's description calls "cheeky."

"It's hard not to like it," says Taney. The appeal, she says, comes from the performance's impressive use of baroque music, along with an inventive use of costumes. French visual artist Annette Messager created stunning and strange pieces that stand alone — the production doesn't involve a set or many props, just soprano Isabelle Poulenard, soprano Mailys de Villourteys, and tenor Robert Getchell, and an accompanying musical ensemble onstage. "It's totally charming," says Taney.

Pesson writes in his composer's note, "I have sometimes been referred to (however accurately or inaccurately) as a composer of memories, as someone who has written works based on existing compositions, but this was the first time I had been presented with a proposal as radical as the imaginative idea devised by Héloïse Gaillard and the Ensemble Amarillis." The radical proposal he's referring to is the premise of La Double Coquette — to meld an 18th century piece of work with 21st century revisions. Revisions include notable additions like a long monologue performed by the character Florise and smaller additions, like the length a chord is held, or the change in a musical note.

Just as the music and text blend old with new, so does Messager, creating costumes that speak to two different centuries.

Messager, who had never created costumes before this show, says, "I often worked with fabrics that become like human organs, hair, representations of animals. But to work on and with human beings, living beings is completely different. It is a challenge, a confrontation, which is interesting."

The costumes are fitting for La Double Coquette's genre, that of the comedic opera. The opera comique is more than just a genre, though — it's also a French musical institution, which celebrated its tricentennial last year. The institution and the genre were founded in the early 18th century, focusing on the "comique" part of opera, which, to clarify, doesn't mean audiences have to laugh at the performance. Rather, comedic operas utilize spoken words, along with singing, unlike traditional operas that feature singing throughout.

"It's a nice balance to Porgy and Bess and The Little Match Girl," says Taney of La Double Coquette's light-hearted nature. Balance isn't just something the Spoleto organizers are looking for — it's also what Pesson had in mind when revising Davergne's original work. He says, "We wanted stylistic periods to slip seamlessly from one era into the other. It is hard to tell the 18th and 21st centuries apart, all because of the blurred lines."

Accompanied on stage by the Amarillis Ensemble, a group dedicated to interpreting both Baroque music as well as modern genres like jazz, the performers must create both a sense of intimacy and betrayal, while evoking the world around them. As Pesson says in his composer's note, "This is what we have done here: we have echoes, divides, caricatures (not quite "tailor made") with the two coquettes, the two librettists, the two composers, and ultimately the two sides to the one face."

It is this opera with a two-faced identity — the old and the new, the comedic and the dramatic — that held a dress rehearsal in Paris, three days after a terrorist attack. "I'm not that fluent in French," says Taney, who has trouble putting into words the unity, strength, and resilience she saw in the French people during La Double Coquette's performance. "I don't know how to define it, but I felt from the audience, 'We're out here, we're doing this, we're seeing this show.'"

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