Colas et Colinette ou le Bailli dupé

Colas et Colinette ou le Bailli dupé. 'Comedy in prose intermixed with ariettas,' text and music by Joseph Quesnel, probably the first operatic work with original music to be written on Canadian soil (and most likely in North America), and the first to be performed.

Colas et Colinette ou le Bailli dupé

Colas et Colinette ou le Bailli dupé. 'Comedy in prose intermixed with ariettas,' text and music by Joseph Quesnel, probably the first operatic work with original music to be written on Canadian soil (and most likely in North America), and the first to be performed. Composed about 1789, it was premiered in Montreal 14 Jan 1790 at the Théâtre de Société and drew a flattering anonymous notice in the Gazette de Montréal (21 Jan 1790): 'the work pleases first, then charms, then delights... The applause was duly merited and did credit both to the author and to the audience... it is one of those works que decies repetita placent'. A second performance was given at the same place 9 February 'in aid of the poor'.

The work was performed again 15 years later, at the Théâtre Patagon in Quebec City 29 Jan and 23 Feb 1805, and the Gazette (31 Jan 1805), after pointing out that 'this is perhaps the first piece of the kind that has been written and performed in this province,' added: 'as a colonial production, it possesses considerable merit. It rarely happens that the Poetry and Music are composed by the same person'. The work was performed again in Quebec City 7 Feb and 21 May 1807. Although it is only presumed that Quesnel attended his work's premiere, it seems that he did hear at least one of the Quebec performances, and that it was not to his liking. In a letter to the publisher John Neilson in April 1807 he said that it had given him 'very little pleasure,' that it 'doubtless was very unpleasant for the gentlemen and ladies of Quebec that the music, which in this work is as necessary to success as the words... was murdered so cruelly,' and that it 'would have been a hundred times better to have left out the instruments and let the well-rehearsed voices sing alone, than to make them sing to screeching clarinets and deafening horns'.

Inspired by Rousseau's philosophy, the plot centres on Monsieur Dolmont's ward, the shepherdess Colinette, who would rather have Colas, a simple and honest young shepherd, as a husband than le Bailli, who claims to be well established but is old and depraved. The score consists of 14 musical pieces, comprising arias for each character, duos, and a final chorus. The libretto and music are of French inspiration and recall certain works by Quesnel's contemporaries Grétry, Monsigny, and Philidor. The tunes are suited to the personalities of the characters, vivacious or noble according to the situation. Occasionally the style is even dramatic. The score does not state the type of voice required for each role, but the tessitura assigns a soprano to Colinette, a tenor to Colas, and basses to le Bailli and Monsieur Dolmont. The ABA form used in several pieces applies to the harmonic and metric structure more often than to melodic reprise.

Research done in 1952 by Helmut Kallmann brought to light the manuscript parts for the voices and the second violin at the Archives of the Séminaire de Québec (MG Verreau). It is possible thus to verify that the work was performed with instrumental accompaniment, as Quesnel states in his remarks to Neilson. We know from Quesnel's letters to Neilson that those responsible for the Quebec performance failed to follow the original instrumentation. Quesnel emphasized that the accompaniment was 'intended exclusively for violins, viola, and cello' and that he could not 'tolerate those wretched clarinets'.

In 1963, Godfrey Ridout, reconstructed the opera's orchestral accompaniment on the basis of the vocal and second violin parts for a revival 6 Oct 1963 by Ten Centuries Concerts in Toronto. The performance, in costume but without staging, brought together Geneviève Perreault as Colas, Judith Lebane as Colinette, Peter Dimuantes as le Bailli, and Howard Mawson as Monsieur Dolmont. John Walker was the narrator and Ridout conducted. The overture which Quesnel planned to 'put at the beginning of the work's music according to custom' was never written by him and Ridout added one after the 1963 revival, using themes from the work. CBC Radio broadcast the opera on its French network in March 1965 and on its English network in May of that year. It was performed in English (in a translation by Micheline Tessier) 25 Mar 1969 on CBC TV with Perry Price as Colas, Claire Gagnier as Colinette, Claude Corbeil as le Bailli, and David Geary as Monsieur Dolmont. Peter Symcox was the director and producer. Other performances were given at the University of Ottawa in January 1972, the orchestral parts in a two-piano reduction; and in Milan in 1977 as part of I Pomeriggi Musicali, with a cast which included Janis Orenstein and Janos Vaskenicius, under the direction of Harvey Sachs. An abridged version, but staged, costumed, and accompanied by an orchestra, was given in 1976 at Dundurn Castle in Hamilton, Ont, by the Mohawk College Opera Theatre. Lee Hepner conducted, and Giuseppe Macina directed the staging. More recently Colas et Colinette was revived at Harbourfront Studio Theatre, Toronto in 1981, Victoria Hall (Montreal) in Westmount (Montreal), under the direction of Eugene Plawutsky in 1986, and at the Maison des arts of Laval under the direction of Gilbert Patenaude in 1987, by the Théâtre d'art lyrique de Laval, and has also received numerous other performances.

The libretto of Colas et Colinette ou le Bailli dupé was published in Quebec City in 1808 by Neilson, who also wanted to print the music. He exchanged about a dozen letters on this subject with Quesnel, who made several recommendations (for instance, 'having all the music printed in separate parts and the play in a booklet in the same format as those that are printed in Paris or Toulouse'), adding that publication of the complete score would be less profitable, 'seeing that few people in this country have the desire or the means to make such an expenditure'. Quesnel deplored that 'the taste for music, which for three-quarters of Europeans is the source of their greatest pleasure... lags in Canada, by a century or more, behind the taste for literature'. Quesnel was unable to finish correcting the proofs before his death and the project was never pursued.

The libretto was printed again in James Huston's Le Répertoire national (Montreal 1848). Neilson's original edition appeared in facsimile (Réédition Québec 1968). The text was published also in Anthologie thématique du théâtre québécois du XIXe siècle by Étienne-F. Duval (Montreal 1978). The vocal score of Godfrey Ridout's reconstruction, with English translation by Ridout and Michel S. Lecavalier, was published by Gordon V. Thompson in 1974. Excerpts are also included in CMH, vol 10. An abridged recording (12 excerpts, RCI 234/Select CC-15-001 and SSC-24-160) was made in 1968 by the CBC IS, with Léopold Simoneau as Colas, Pierrette Alarie as Colinette, Claude Corbeil as le Bailli, and Claude Létourneau as Monsieur Dolmont; Pierre Hétu conducted.

According to Raymond Ericson of the New York Times (11 Aug 1968), 'the work is more than just a curiosity, at least in the Ridout restoration. Related in form and style to the stage works of Quesnel's contemporaries such as Grétry, it has considerable charm. Some of the arias are distinctive for their folk-like quality or their melodic grace, and there is an extremely attractive patter duet'.


Further Reading

  • Kallmann, Helmut. 'Joseph Quesnel, pioneer Canadian composer,' CanComp, 3, Oct 1965

    Potvin, Gilles. 'Joseph Quesnel, le premier Canadiaen à composer un opéra, fut un contemporain de Mozart!' Montreal La Presse, 23 Mar 1968

    Haworth, Frank. ' Colas et Colinette: a character larger than life,' CanComp, 31, Jul-Aug 1968

    Chartier, Yves. 'La reconstitution musicale de Colas et Colinette de Joseph Quesnel,' Bulletin du Centre de recherche en civilisation canadienne-francaise, vol 2, Apr 1972

    Kallmann, Helmut. Introduction to the Thompson edition of Colas et Colinette (Toronto 1974) and for the Select recording

    Du Berger, Jean. 'Colas et Colinette ou le Bailli dupé,' Dictionnaire des oeuvres littéraires du Québec, vol 1, ed Maurice Lemire (Montreal 1978)

    Poirier, Lucien. 'La fortune de deux oeuvres de Jean-Jacques Rousseau au Canada français entre 1790 et 1850,' Musical Canada.