Tucked away in the middle of Northern Virginia is the quickest getaway to France money can buy — all you need to be utterly transported to Paris is a sumptuous croissant and classical crooning at Shakespeare Opera Theatre’s Vive la France. It’s a true Valentine’s treat.
Vive la France is a revue of French opera and philosophy — mostly arias and duets punctuated by barely connected quotes from the many, many white men apparently revered in French classical music. While the program lacks any acknowledgment of the contributions people of color and women have made to French classical music, the four female performers elevate the script and space with their gorgeous interpretations of some of the best-known pieces in opera.
Between the incredible performances and the romantic atmosphere, I could not help being transported to Paris. The space — once a dingy church hall — had been transformed into an inviting cafe with dimmed lighting, Valentines-themed table settings, and delicious treats provided by Baguette Republic of Sterling. This pairing — divine singing and delectable pastries — is all one really needs to get France.
The first act began with two selections from Kirke Mechem’s opera based on Molière’s Tartuffe. Jenna Rose Stein lead Charlotte Bagwell in a hilarious rendition of “Death by Moonlight,” and the two little girls seated nearby could not contain their giggles at her unabashed willingness to be silly as she sang. Stein was charming in every number throughout the night — both her acting and vocal range were impressive, and her darker turn in “Depuis le Jour” from Charpentier’s Louise was as rich and engaging as her comedic chops. In just one night, she radiantly captured the despair and thrill of first love.
Bagwell and Stein continued to be a well-matched pair in the flirtatious Letter Duet from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro as well as in a Berlioz trio with mezzo-soprano Alexandra Coburn. Their trio from Béatrice et Bénedict hit all the right notes while capturing the emotional depth of the piece. Without the context of the full opera, it can be difficult to deliver the weight of these characters’ journeys, but this trio gave a rich, emotional performance.
After Berlioz, we were treated to Bizet with Alexandra Coburn’s sensual “Habanera” from Carmen, a role just waiting for her to play it. Her performance was reminiscent of Rehanna Thelwell’s interpretation at WNO last year — they both created savvy, smart Carmens who deserve longer runs on larger stages.
The accompaniment by Andrew Kraus was attentive throughout, and the direction by Managing Director and Founder Dr. Lori Lind was straightforward and uncomplicated. Disappointingly, Lakme’s Flower Duet lacked the queerness that is so inherent to its text, as evident by its appearances in sapphic cult classics like The L Word and vampire flick The Hunger. Textually, it is one of the opera canon’s queerest songs, and as Susan Sarandon says in The Hunger before Catherine Deneuve seduces her, “It sounds like a love song.” It is structurally no different in tone or text from a love song. Despite this, Bagwell and Valérie Filloux share a dispassionate version of the duet. At the end, they turn their backs away from the audience — a directorial choice as confusing as it is ineffective.
Filloux, though misdirected in Flower Duet, offers a playful take on Old Lady to Bagwell’s Cunegonde during the last part of the night’s ode to Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. Filloux is a generous scene partner who offered wit and charm to the performance.
For the finale, the four women finally performed as one. Most selections from Candide fall flat without the vigor of an ensemble, though they performed the Quartet Finale of Act I with a gentle ease. It felt cruel to not allow these talented vocalists to play with “Make Our Garden Grow,” but perhaps that is reason enough to return to France one day.
Running Time: Approximately two hours with one 10-minute intermission.
Vive la France: Scenes et Chansons plays once more on Sunday, February 19, 2023, at 5 pm presented by Shakespeare Opera Theatre performing at Grace the Plains Episcopal Church, 6507 Main Street, The Plains, VA. For tickets ($35–$55), buy them at the door, or purchase them online.
In English and French with surtitles. Valentine’s treats and drinks are available for purchase.
Charlotte Bagwell, coloratura soprano
Jenna Rose Stein, lyric soprano
Valérie Filloux, lyric mezzo-soprano
Alexandra Coburn, dramatic mezzo-soprano