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May 5, 1997

Two performances of French opera planned at Music Center

On Saturday, May 31, and Sunday, June 1, the University Opera Theater will present the premiere of the first modern edition of a nearly forgotten French comic opera, Sisters of the Visitation, by Francois Devienne. The opera will be performed in the Music Center Recital Hall at 8 p.m. The opera features a full orchestra and will be the first performance to make use of the hall's orchestra pit.

UCSC music students and the University Orchestra will perform, conducted by UCSC music professor Sherwood Dudley, who is also general director and editor. UCSC lecturer in French Miriam Ellis directs the opera, which she also translated. Tickets are $10 general, $8 seniors, and $5 students and are available in advance at the UCSC Ticket Office. For more information, call (408) 459-2159 (V/TDD).

Though the opera has not been performed anywhere in any version since 1920, it was wildly popular in its heyday. In fact, this light-hearted comedy was so successful during its initial 1792 season in Paris that Devienne and his librettist, Jean-Louis Picard, expanded the original two acts to three for the 1793 season. The opera was frequently performed in both versions until 1806, when the longer one dropped out of the repertory, leaving the two-act opera to be mounted from time to time throughout the 19th century in a great variety of settings.

Although the opera, whose French title is Les Visitandines, was printed immediately in 1792, the expanded 1793 version was never published, and all manuscript copies of the additional music had vanished long ago. Several years ago, Dudley was asked to prepare a scholarly edition of the original version for a series of historic editions. While doing research in the municipal library in Lille, France, he discovered a faded manuscript copy of the added music tucked away among the orchestral parts of the two-act version.

Dudley set out to reconstruct the music and found that here and there he was required to imagine what Devienne would have written and add some missing measures. "The copyist was not one of the better ones of the day," Dudley comments. "It's easy to tell where he obviously got tired or perhaps had too many glasses of wine." But since Devienne's compositional style was quite consistent, Dudley feels he has come up with what the composer intended.

Even before discovering the added music, Dudley asked Ellis, his friend and colleague, to make an English translation of the opera. This is not the first time the pair have worked together. In 1989, the UCSC Opera Theater produced their innovative version of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro.

The story of Sisters of the Visitation would never have been allowed on the French stage before the Revolution, which had begun three years before its premiere and had swept in a wave of anticlerical sentiment. The plot revolves around a young gentleman, Belfort, who is returning to his hometown with his servant, Frontin, after two years of wandering throughout Europe and leading a libertine life. He finds that the woman he truly loves and wants to marry, Euphemie, has lost hope of his ever coming back and has joined a convent. She is to take her final vows the following week.

In order to try to get her out of the convent, Belfort poses as a nun and Frontin dresses as a priest. In league with the convent's gardener, Gregoire, they manage to get inside the convent, and the resultant action unfolds in a highly comedic vein. When it is discovered that a real nun and a priest are having secret trysts, Belfort promises the Mother Superior to keep the little scandal a secret if she will allow Euphemie to leave with him. Though today's audiences will view the opera simply as poking gentle fun at the formality of religious orders, the audiences during the Revolution reveled in it as one of the manifestations of their newly granted right to criticize members of the clergy.

The principal roles in the opera will be performed by UCSC music students, most of whom plan to pursue careers in opera or musical comedy. Euphemie will be sung by Susannah Murray; Belfort, Brian Maples; Frontin, Adam Hobbs; Gregoire, Joshua Bongers; the Mother Superior, Sonia Gariaeff; Sister Bonaventure, the portress of the convent, will be portrayed by Candace Roberts; and the Coachman's role will be played by Brad Shreve. Playing two other nuns with significant roles are Robin Bricker as Sister Agnes and Doanna Meads as Sister Josephine. A chorus of 15 nuns rounds out the cast.

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