‘The Chevalier’ Review: A Music-Theater Portrait of Joseph Boulogne



    Now, the composer Joseph Boulogne would be hailed as a Renaissance man: artist, athlete, intellectual, soldier. Born in Guadeloupe in 1745, the son of a white French plantation owner and an enslaved mother of Senegalese origin, Boulogne became a virtuoso violinist, prodigious composer, champion fencer, the general of Europe’s first Black regiment and an avid abolitionist.

    But Boulogne, a.k.a. the Chevalier de Saint-Georges (and whose last name is sometimes spelled “Bologne”), was a biracial man in a time and place that held little space for him, which means his remarkable life has largely been erased from the historical narrative, though that is beginning to change.

    “The Chevalier,” a trim hybrid of theater and music, seeks to revive his reputation. The show was written and directed by Bill Barclay, the artistic director of Music Before 1800. (Barclay also plays Choderlos de Laclos, a Boulogne collaborator and author of the novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses.”) A single performance at the eye-poppingly opulent United Palace theater in Washington Heights on Sunday served as its New York City premiere; it will be available to stream next month.

    “The Chevalier” starts rather unpromisingly. Barclay takes as his point of imaginative departure the few weeks that Boulogne and Mozart were housemates in Paris. Mozart, 11 years younger, grills Boulogne about his life story, and he responds with long, expository answers that hit on major biographical points — more school lecture than beguiling drama.

    Soon, though, “The Chevalier” finds a witty, incisive groove. (It’s far more enjoyable than the soapy, forgettable biopic “Chevalier,” from 2022.) Barclay’s setup also dismantles the demeaning idea that Boulogne was “the Black Mozart” — at best, an also-ran in the white classical pantheon. Instead, Barclay frames him as a mentor to Mozart, guiding him through the politics of musical Paris.

    The narrative elements of “The Chevalier,” interspersed with musical excerpts, illuminate and contextualize Boulogne’s music in a way that a listener’s chance encounter, on a playlist or in a live concert, might not. In one scene, Boulogne and the French queen Marie Antoinette — whom Boulogne tutored in music — discuss how in a piece for violin and piano, he gives both instruments equal weight, making them peers: the philosophy of a fervent abolitionist, summed up in a sonata.

    Barclay also draws nuanced, if hard-to-miss, links between 18th-century France and 21st-century America, including references to racist policing and violence that Boulogne experienced.

    The actor R.J. Foster shares the role of Boulogne with the violinist Brendon Elliott; Foster takes the spoken role, while Elliott plays his instrument as the Chevalier. In a few wry asides, Foster telegraphs the impossible position Boulogne occupied in French society, as a Black abolitionist working in the service of the royal court — which was funded in part by the enslavement of people in the Caribbean. (Marie Antoinette doesn’t quite understand his situation and thinks he would make an ideal music director of the Paris Opera; Boulogne doesn’t get the job, after noblemen and musicians reject being led by “a mulatto.”)

    Elliott lends his silvery tone, superb phrasing and a commanding technique to the Chevalier’s solos. I look forward to seeing him perform in more traditional concert settings.

    Merritt Janson brings a certain pathos to the role of Marie Antoinette on the eve of the French Revolution. David Joseph’s Mozart is a petulant newcomer, thirsting for public adoration.

    The Harlem Chamber Players offer sparkling, taut performances. The pianist Jas Ogiste performs tender, yearning solos for Marie Antoinette’s character; the violinist Ashley Horne provides deep tone and rich color to his duet with Elliott in an excerpt from Boulogne’s Symphony Concertante in G major.

    At a talkback after the performance, Elliott correctly described Boulogne’s technically formidable violin works as “proto-Paganini,” while Barclay offered a spirited defense of Boulogne’s music, which is often, and unfairly, compared to that of Haydn and Mozart. “Mozart wasn’t leading a revolution,” Barclay observed: “The man was busy.”

    “The Chevalier”

    Performed Sunday at the United Palace, Manhattan; available to stream, Feb. 4-18 at www.mb1800.org.

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