Arts opera review

When a lumberjack turns into a doctor in rural France...

A farce about the medical profession of 17th century France

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The ensemble sings together in 'Le Médecin Malgré Lui.'
Kathy Wittman

Le Médecin Malgré Lui
Composed by Charles-François Gounod
Libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré
Huntington Avenue Theater
Nov. 9–11

As a celebration of the 200th anniversary of Charles Gounod’s birth, the Odyssey Opera presents this opéra-comique while also preserving original text from Molière’s play. Sung in French and paired with English subtitles, the opera features never-before heard recitatives by Erik Satie. Serving to frame the atmosphere of the opening act, the overture performed by the background orchestra was in the major key. It was both cheeky and energetic; the percussion added a special effect.

The plot is split into three separate acts. In the first, an alcoholic lumberjack named Sgnararelle treats his wife, Martine, extremely poorly. When she’s left alone to her own thoughts, Martine seeks to plot the most ill-willed revenge against her husband. All of a sudden, two servants of the wealthy Géronte by the name of Valère and Lucas cross paths with Martine, in search of a doctor for their master’s daughter, Lucinde. It is later revealed that she feigns the illness the entire time in order to avoid a marriage that her father has set up for her. Martine tells the servants that her husband is the best doctor around, but one that refuses to practice his medicine unless beaten to confession. When they find Sgnararelle in the woods, they thrash him and bring him back to their master’s home.

In the following act, Sgnararelle is ironically treated like royalty when he is received in the Géronte household. Then, Lucinde’s true lover, Léandre, sings an emotional serenade on both the power and pains of love. Géronte hears this and then continues to complain to the nursemaid, Jacqueline, about how he has arranged for Lucinde to marry a rich husband, yet his efforts are unappreciated. When Sgnararelle begins to diagnose Lucinde’s “disease,” he states the obvious and provides nonsensical treatments but still impresses the entire household.

In the final act, Sgnararelle employs Léandre as his apothecary in order to return to Géronte’s house. He admits to Léandre that he isn’t a true doctor and helps distract the Géronte household and arrange for Léandre to elope with Lucinde. When the “doctor” and his “apothecary” return, Lucinde instantly regains her speech abilities, which infuriates Géronte as he realizes the truth behind the matter. Just as Géronte summons a police officer to hang Sgnararelle, Lucinde and her lover arrive to the scene and announce that Léandre has recently inherited a fortune, which prompts Géronte to approve of their marriage. Sgnararelle is freed at last and the entire group celebrates.

Stylistically speaking, I found both the costumes, staging, and props very appropriate to the time period portrayed. Everything emulated the French revolutionary aura. The flute melody in between Act I and II was also unique in its sound, arousing curiosity leading into the next part of the plot. In terms of vocal and stage performance, the vocal harmony presented by the cast proved to be highly impressive. Whitney Robinson (who portrayed Martine)’s solo stood out in terms of how comical her message was and the power her vocal quality demonstrated. One thing I would like to point out, though, was that during certain choruses, some of the casts’ dancing was off-beat from the orchestral accompaniment. However, it is important to note that the cast had to handle much physical movement while singing operatically, especially Stephen Salters (Sgnararelle).

With this opera being the first one I’ve seen, I very much enjoyed its entertainment value and its skepticism of the medical practice in 17th century France.