Omar Najmi, Sandra Piques-Eddy, Brianna J. Robinson and Evan Hughes in BLO's "The Anonymous Lover" Source: Nile Scott Studios

Review: BLO Celebrates 18th Century Black Composer Chevalier with Handsome Production of Opera Rarity

Ed Tapper READ TIME: 4 MIN.

In celebration of Black History Month, Boston Lyric Opera presented an operatic rarity by one of the most colorful figures in music history, Joseph Bologne, a.k.a. Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

Bologne was born in Guadeloupe in 1745, the son of a wealthy white plantation owner and one of his Creole slaves. The gifted boy was sent to France for his schooling. Soon he made a name for himself there in musical, military, and social circles. He became the first free man of color to gain fame as a musical composer, and his enthusiastic supporters included Marie Antionette herself. He was nicknamed "The Black Mozart," a homage to his compositional skills as well those of his illustrious contemporary.

Turning to the operatic genre, he was considered for the directorship of the Paris Opera. Yet, his nomination was vetoed due to racial prejudice. (His life was so full of incident that it was recently made it a biopic, Chevalier," released in 2022.)

Of the six operas he composed, 1780's "L'amant anonyme (The Anonymous Lover)" was his most popular stage work – though all of his operas have fallen into relative obscurity. A co-revival with Opera Philadelphia, BLO's "The Anonymous Lover" boasted a handsome production and excellent overall singing, making a very strong case, for a somewhat weak vehicle.

The simplistic plot concerns Leontine, a beautiful aristocratic widow who, for a few years. has been receiving love letters and gifts from an ardent admirer who refuses to reveal his identity. Her close friend Valcour is that man, but he is too timid to reveal his hidden passion, and insists on remaining anonymous. His friend Ophemon encourages Valcour to declare himself, while Dorothee, the confidante of Leontine, encourages the widow to open her heart to a new love. With the help of a young newlywed couple, Jeannette and Colin, the characters discuss that one situation for 90 minutes, until Valcourt finally reveals himself. At the same moment, Ophemon and Dorothee confess their attraction for each other. Nothing much really happens, but all ends happily. A more inspired libretto would certainly have helped matters.

Likewise, the music, though well-crafted, was highly conventional, imbued with standard harmonic and melodic formulae of the Classical Period. It is instructive to hear typical works of this period, as it sheds light on the average tastes of the 18th century aristocracy, while making us truly appreciate the surpassing genius of composers like Gluck, Haydn, and Mozart. Yet, the score did have a few striking touches, such as the prelude to Dorothee's Act 1 aria, and the Act 1 sextet finale.

What a pleasure it was to see beautiful period costumes instead of jeans and T-shirts. As the work is so germane to the 18th century, the production thankfully presented it as such. The sets were simple but attractive, evoking the highly ornate, decorative style of the epoch. The orchestra was positioned at the back of the stage, behind a translucent curtain, while the action played out in the foreground. Led by BLO music director David Angus, the orchestra appeared comfortable in the early Classical idiom, and played well. The music was sung in the original French, but the arias and ensembles were interspersed with English dialogue; it was the singing that really put the work across so convincingly.

The title role was sung by Boston-based Omar Najmi. Valcourt is a tenor part, although Najmi's voice had a darker, baritonal timbre. As the work progressed, it took on more of a tenor ring, and the talented young singer polished off the role extremely well, creating a sympathetic hero. Bass/baritone Evan Hughes wielded a really impressive sound, at moments too large for the venue. However, he was consistently musical, and displayed fine comic skills.

The mezzo role of Dorothee has one aria, but Sandra Piques Eddy made the most of it. She has a terrific speaking voice that would grace any serious dramatic stage, and excellent diction, and she used these gifts to subtle comic effect in the opera. As young lovers Jeannette and Colin, Ashley Emerson and Zhengyi Bai were absolutely delightful.

As Leontine, soprano Brianna J. Robinson was in a class by herself. Hers is sumptuous, velvety soprano voice, rich in the middle with a secure, lustrous top. The voice cries out for the Mozart/Strauss repertoire. Her gorgeous voice, combined with fine musicianship and an ingratiating stage presence make for a talent to be watched.

Boston Lyric Opera has consistently fulfilled its mission to present a number of operatic rarities from every period. In March, the company leaps from the 18th century to the present, concluding its 2023-24 season with a production of a modern work. With a libretto by playwright Sarah Ruhl, and music by the young composer Matthew Aucoin, "Euridice" will run at the Huntington Theatre from March 1-10. For tickets and information visit

"The Anonymous Lover" was performed on February 16, 17, and 18 at Boston's Huntington Theatre.

by Ed Tapper

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