Haymarket Opera’s ‘L’Amant anonyme’ takes its cue from days gone by

This production, starring lyric soprano Nicole Cabell, will not be a modern take on an old story. The goal is to come as close as possible to the kind of experience its original audiences enjoyed.

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Lyric soprano Nicole Cabell, who will sing Léontine in “L’Amant anonyme (The Anonymous Lover),” says the character reminds her of several Mozart heroines.

Lyric soprano Nicole Cabell, who will sing Léontine in “L’Amant anonyme (The Anonymous Lover),” says the character reminds her of several Mozart heroines.

Devon Cass

He was such a champion swordsman at the French court of King Louis XV that John Adams once said he could hit “any Button on the Coat or Waistcoat of the greatest rivals.” And none other than Marie Antoinette admired him as a virtuoso violinist, conductor and composer.

Today he is known as Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, often referred to as the Black Mozart, and an outstanding composer in his own right, if little known.

“There is definitely a stylistic similarity between Bologne’s music and the Mozart heroines I’ve sung,” says lyric soprano Nicole Cabell, who takes the leading role in Bologne’s 1780 jewel of a chamber opera, “L’Amant anonyme (The Anonymous Lover),” to be staged June 17-19 by Chicago’s Haymarket Opera.

Haymarket opera

‘L’Amant anonyme’ (“The Anonymous Lover”)

When: June 17-19

Where: Jarvis Opera Hall, Holtschneider Performance Center at DePaul University, 800 W. Belden Ave.

Tickets: $47-$92

Info: haymarketopera.org

Cabell’s rapid rise to stardom began with training at Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Center,and just weeks after graduating, she won the 2005 BBC Singer of the World competition.

She has since sung major roles at the Metropolitan Opera and other great houses including the Lyric. Her Chicago ties include a former teaching stint at DePaul University, home of Jarvis Opera Hall, where “L’Amant anonyme” will be performed.

Bologne’s ethnicity was part of the appeal to Cabell, who is African American, although at the time her career took off, as she put it, “people were already shining a light on diversity in the field. So I got into this business doing operas from the central canon of the repertoire. Specific to my ethnicity, though, I have been involved in the performances of works by Black composers in addition to Bologne, such as the opera ‘Highway 1, U.S.A.’ by William Grant Still at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis and ‘Lilacs’ by George Walker with the London Symphony.”

Designer Stephanie Cluggish’s rendering for a costume to be worn by soprano Nicole Cabell in Haymarket Opera’s production of “L’Amant anonyme (The Anonymous Lover).” |

Designer Stephanie Cluggish’s rendering for a costume to be worn by soprano Nicole Cabell in Haymarket Opera’s production of “L’Amant anonyme (The Anonymous Lover).” |

Haymarket Opera Company

“L’Amant anonyme” tells the bittersweet tale of a wealthy young widow, Léontine, who is unaware the anonymous love letters she’s receiving are from someone she actually knows. Bologne’s gem was written when Mozart, 11 years younger, was making occasional visits to Paris. It will be re-created in the authentic period style that is Haymarket’s specialty.

Chicago-based Cedille Records plans a recording.

“The fire and spirit of Donna Elvira from Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’ is present in several of Léontine’s arias, particularly the instrumental color in the vocal line,” says Cabell. “Léontine is initially reluctant to fall in love, and this steadfastness shows in dramatic minor-key passages.” Léontine also reminds her of other great Mozart heroines.

Léontine’s wild leaps — sometimes up to a high C — are not unlike Fiordiligi’s in “Così fan tutte,” she says. And Léontine’s sense of longing is similar to the Countess’ in “The Marriage of Figaro:” “The Countess has suffered the infidelity that is implied in Léontine’s story, and while Léontine doesn’t long for love the same way as the Countess, they both eventually soften to its powers. ‘L’Amant anonyme’ is light and charming, very enjoyable in its own right.”

This production will not be a modern take on an old story, says Haymarket’s general director Chase Hopkins. The goal is to come as close as possible to the kind of experience its original audiences enjoyed. “None of us alive today saw an opera in the 18th century,” says Hopkins. “But many pieces of information are coming to light about how they did things then.

Chase Hopkins, general director of Haymarket Opera

Chase Hopkins, general director of Haymarket Opera.

Randall Kahn

“The stage would have been lit in front, with footlight candles, which would give the hand-painted scenery a glow. We can’t use candles, of course. But our lighting designer told us about a trick they used with water, refracting the light through water to spread it further. The sounds will be different, too. These are not the clarinets and horns you hear in the Chicago Symphony. These are the ancestors of those instruments.”

Director-choreographer Sarah Edgar plans to use dancers to fill out what’s implied but not sung. “In ‘West Side Story,’ the characters are meant to be both singing and dancing, but that’s not the case in this opera,” she says. “Bologne’s music only suggests a happy ending. It’s the dancers who make the wedding clear.”

Production designer Wendy Waszut-Barrett was inspired by imagery in “The Swing,” an oil painting by Fragonard in distinctive pastel colors. “It was the look that called to all of us,” she said. She has begun to design new opera productions of her own, using the old materials, colors and techniques of traveling company shows dating back to Bologne’s time.

“They took pure color, mixed it with a binder and diluted it with glue so it didn’t have a sheen,” Waszut-Barrett said. “A smaller opera house might have used these flat painted scenes interchangeably from show to show.

“There’s a proud tradition of Chicago artists who would ship a package of 14 to 50 painted settings for a theater, depending on its size. You’d have a country garden, a baronial hall, a gothic interior, a kitchen, a landscape with a castle. The traveling circuses used that technique for their spectacles, too. That was an inspiration to us.”

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