Review: Minnesota Opera’s colorful ‘Anonymous Lover’ goes big with silly romance, splendid music

Review: Minnesota Opera’s colorful ‘Anonymous Lover’ goes big with silly romance, splendid music
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Minnesota Opera’s production of “The Anonymous Lover,” by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, goes big with bright and outlandish sets and costumes, silly romance, and splendid music. The production marks the first time the company has presented the work of a Black composer in a mainstage production.

The opera — though you could consider it an operetta, due to its spoken dialogue segments — has a simple story. The widow Léontine (played by Symone Harcum) has been receiving anonymous love letters for years, which turn out to be from her good friend Valcour (played by Carlos Enrique Santelli). Léontine figures out the truth early on and both characters struggle to come clean about their true feelings for one another.

The story is told through Bologne’s light, scrumptious melodies that may remind you of Mozart (they were contemporaries, though Bologne was a bit older and possibly an influence on the younger Mozart.)

Stage director Maria Todaro, who also co-wrote the script with Harrison David Rivers based on François-Georges Fouques Deshayes, Desfontaines’ libretto, sets the story in the Caribbean, nodding to Bologne’s personal history. Bologne was born into slavery on Basse-Terre Island in the western half of Guadeloupe before his white plantation owner father sent him to France to be educated.

Zoie Reams and Symone Harcum in Minnesota Opera’s “The Anonymous Lover.” (Photo by Dan Cory Weaver)

In Minnesota Opera’s production, Bologne becomes a character in the opera, played by Brian Bose. He performs a pantomime with the character of Stéphanie Félicité de Genlis, Madame de Genlis, who wrote the play on which “The Anonymous Lover” is based. She’s played by Jennifer Mack. When the action of the opera begins, the two characters move to the upper level of the set, becoming frozen, as if they were statues, inside of two different archways. Occasionally they break out of their poses to watch the action of the story.

Having the writer and composer stand frozen for much of the performance is just one of the bold, but a little strange, choices made by the artistic team.

Another is the choice to plop a giant statue of a woman holding a pineapple in the middle of the stage. Characters touch the statute as they pass by, as if for good luck, or as an act of ritual. Possibly, the statute symbolizes the way the character of Valcour puts Léontine on a pedestal. Or maybe the statue is more for looks amidst Stephan Moravski’s pastel-colored beach party world. The set design nods to colonial-era architecture that is also modern-looking.

Working in tandem with the set design with similar vibrant colors, Ari Fulton’s costumes are doing a lot all at once. Referencing French 17th century fashions as well as Caribbean head wear, floral patterns, and lots of layers, Fulton’s costumes are a jamboree of layers and textures.

Musically, the production makes a few updates to Bologne’s score, according to Tadoro’s director notes. They inserted a violin cadenza to the overture (nodding to Bologne’s gifts as a violinist) and added music for the character of Dorothée (played by Zoie Reams). Reams demonstrates lovely tone musically, and has a comedic knack for the spoken lines as well.

Symone Harcum, as Leontine, wows with her mix of vulnerability and powerful lungs. She nails the high notes.  Unfortunately, Santelli’s acting is a bit drab. While the singer’s vocal ability works fine, he lacks emotion and made missteps with his timing in a role that requires both.

The acting is important in the story because, despite the fact that it’s “just” a romance, it really does get at a lesson that rings true even in 2022: Being honest to oneself and to the people one cares about is the key to happiness in this world. That message did carry through in this production.

If you go

  • What: Minnesota Opera’s production of “The Anonymous Lover”
  • When: 7:30 Feb. 10 and 12, 2 p.m. Feb. 13
  • Where: The Ordway, 345 Washington St., St. Paul
  • Tickets: $25-$218;
  • Capsule: Minnesota Opera presents a fun, high-concept version of Joseph Bologne’s love story opera.
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