Théâtre de l’Athénée 2023 Review: O Mon Bel Inconnu

By João Marcos Copertino

O Mon Bel inconnu (11.IV.2023)

Today, Reynaldo Hahn is remembered less for his music than for his friendships and relationships. In my mind, one of the main reasons for this oblivion is that he managed to surround himself with his friends who often outshone him—who could be wiser than Proust, after all? We are tempted to believe that Hahn composed just a few belle époque songs (“Á Chloris” and “’L’heure Exquise” being his major hits). Athénée’s staging of his “O Mon Bel Inconnu” aims to rescue the theatrical strength and wittiness of Hahn’s works.

“O Mon Bel Inconnu” is more of an early musical comedy than an opera. The book by Sacha Guitry—clever, though a bit too long—deals with an intricate web of seductions through language.

Prosper, a hat seller and patriarch, writes anonymous newspaper ads, receiving replies from his wife (Antoinette), his daughter (Marie-Anne), and his maid (Félicie). The three women feel compelled by the language of the ad, and the seducer’s letter. As Marie-Anne says to her father/seducer: “the letter has phrases, words and even exclamation points that cannot lie.” (“Il y a des phrases… Il y a des mots… Il y a même des… Des points d’exclamation, tiens, qui ne trompent pas”).

Beyond Prosper’s ad, Marie-Anne is also seduced by the good language of Claude, a sympathetic costumer. In their duo together, he continuously plays around with the double meanings of words and letters in the French language.

If language is enough for a comic form of seduction, Hahn and Guitry also understood that there is a limit for the words in a lover’s game. The three women do find, eventually, their suitable partners, but not without consequences. In the most sober musical moment of the night (“Le marriage! Ah ben voyons”), Prosper and Antoinette accept that the comedy had already ended with their wedding and that now it is time for the drama (“La comédie, elle, est finie, Voilà le drame qui commence !”).  Marie-Anne is led to believe that her anonymous correspondent is Claude, and then is invited to leave the comedy in name of pantomime (“Pour terminer la comédie en pantomime!”)—thus leaving the verbal altogether. Félicie also finds a lover in the landlord figure of M. Victor, quite likely the most comic, but less hurtful ending of the play.

Quite likely the best solution to the language affair is summarized by Hilarion Lallumette. This supporting character stays mute almost the entire night, until the last scene, when he discovers how to get around with his muteness: he shall sing! There follows then a conjunction of the language of seduction and music.

The staging is directed by Émeline Bayart, who also sings the role of Félicie. Her conceptualization was traditional. Anne-Sophie Grac’s costumes and sets are quite proper to a story that happens in the 1930s.

Bayart, a skilled comedienne, puts much of her humor into her body language. While she herself manages to get laughs from the audience, some other actors struggle a bit more to do so. Still, it all depends on how receptive an audience member can be to highly choreographed comedy.

The whole production pays great attention to pronunciation. I am not a native French speaker, and I could follow all the sung lyrics without the aid of subtitles. This attention to the text did seem to interfere with the intonation of the singers. It is, indeed, very hard to talk and then sing in the same concert. The beautiful trio “o mon bel inconnu” might have been too affected by this—but in the singers’ defense, the strings in the orchestra had significantly more opaque tuning than usual.

The stage director Émeline Bayart worked very well as Félicie. Her singing was often a caricature of a voice. The text is clear, but everything sounded like a joke. In a certain way, her acting blends operetta with the musical comedy of a pre-microphone era. I myself like a bit more carefulness in phrasing, however.

Marc Labonnette as Prosper proved to have great command of musicality and phrasing. His patriarch was solid, comic, but with good layers of drama, especially in the final scenes.

Clémence Tilquin explored the medium and lower harmonics of her voice. Her Antoinette was sober, sophisticated, and mature. Her strophes in the second act, “C’est très vilain d’être infidèle,” were a highlight of the night.

Sheva Tehoval had her best moments as Marie-Anne in the third act. However, she shone best when singing with the refreshing Victor Sicard (Claude). The baritone has a beautiful tone, and a charming figure that is both comic and compelling as romantic partner (he has that Mel Brooks charisma).

Jean-François Novelli struggle da bit getting laughs out of his physical comedy, but sang both his characters efficiently. Carl Ghararossian was a nice addition as Hilarion Lallumette, the mute that can only sing.

Samuel Jean is very well-acquainted with Hahn’s score, and he was also the conductor of the most recent commercial recording of the opera. Nevertheless, the “Frivolités Parisiennes” sounded a bit off at many moments of the night. There were some issues in tuning, and the orchestra did not always succeed in bringing out the melodies’ refinement. Hahn’s music is more tricky than it might appear.


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