By Lawrence Toppman
I don’t go to movies for history lessons about classical music; when I want those, I check out historically informed performances. That’s why I enjoyed both “Chevalier,” the film biography of the extraordinary Joseph Bologne – better known as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges – and “L’Amant Anonyme,” the world premiere recording of his only surviving opera.
The film opens today; the opera, sung and played with elan by Haymarket Opera Company on the Cedille label, came out nine weeks ago. Both do him honor, the first as a compelling character study and the second as a revelation to those of us who knew only his violin concertos: He wrote for the voice as gracefully as anyone from his era except Mozart and Gluck.
Both those composers turn up as minor villains in the movie, whose historical inaccuracy rivals the nonsense of “Amadeus.” The film begins with Bologne (Kelvin Harrison in a vivid, touching performance) walking onstage as an unknown upstart who whips the snotty Mozart in a cutting contest on the violin. In reality, Bologne was already a famous soloist, conductor and composer when Mozart came to Paris in 1778, and they lived in the same ducal mansion.
The sneering Gluck becomes Bologne’s rival in an operatic duel to see who will run the Paris Opera. The real Gluck never sought that job, and Bologne had been turned down long before Gluck came to Paris. Reigning divas wouldn’t work for a man whose white French father owned a plantation in the West Indies and whose Senegalese mother had been enslaved there.
You do hear a good bit of Bologne’s elegant music throughout the film, though the climactic Romantic era-style concerto comes from other hands. What matters more, in this case, is our introduction to the polymath who became France’s finest fencer, a poet, a soldier and a belated leader of the revolutionary forces that upended the ruling class which raised him to fame.
I neither know nor care whether he really had an affair and illegitimate child with a marquise (Samara Weaving) married to a Royalist racist who despised Bologne (perennial villain Martin Csokas). I do mind the lie that Bologne’s father abandoned the boy after dumping him in Paris and kept him away from his mother (powerful Ronke Adekoluejo); in fact, all three moved into the same comfortable Parisian apartment when Joseph was 9.
Yet the emotional journey of the main character rings true. As Bologne struggles with his Afro-French heritage, trying to please a society that alternately embraces and rejects him according to whims, we feel the pain of a man who’s never on solid ground in his adopted world.
Some of that dramatic tension slips into the two-act “L’Amant Anonyme,” which translates to “The Anonymous Lover.” The widow Léontine, who has forsworn romance, has been wooed with letters and presents by a nameless, unseen stranger. He’s her friend Valcour, who hopes to soften her stance against love before stepping forward. Cedille cleverly put out a three-CD set, offering the music on one disc and the music plus 20 minutes of French dialogue on two others.
Charlotte audiences have heard Nicole Cabell twice in recent months, as the soprano soloist in the Charlotte Symphony “Messiah” and the title role of Opera Carolina’s “Porgy and Bess.” Her lustrous soprano suits Léontine, who gets the opera’s most beautiful music in the plaintive “Du tendre amour,” as she awakens reluctantly to love. Gentle-voiced tenor Geoffrey Agpalo leads a capable supporting cast, and conductor Craig Trompeter and a small orchestra keep the rhythms springing to avert monotony.
Does this improbable opera equal the best of Mozart? No, but remember: Bologne premiered it in 1780, before Mozart wrote any operatic masterpieces. (“Idomeneo” opened in 1781.) “Anonyme” ranks with second-tier Gluck and first-tier everybody else among Bologne’s 18th-century contemporaries, including Haydn and Domenico Cimarosa. It’s lightly funny and genuinely moving in spots, and Bologne himself adapted a play by his patroness, Félicité de Genlis.
We still have a lot to learn about this fascinating man. Much of his own symphonic music has been lost, though he did commission and conduct Haydn’s six delightful “Paris” symphonies in the 1780s. Except for “Anonyme,” none of his vocal works has been discovered.
As both the movie and the thoughtful essay in Cedille’s booklet note, Napoleon reinstated slavery in 1802 and made even free blacks non-persons. Bologne had died by then, and his music was dismissed and discarded, so we’ll probably never know the full range of his talents. Maybe this movie and opera will inspire scholars to keep digging.
Pictured: Scene from “Chevalier”/courtesy of Spotlight Pictures.