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Balls of steel. That must be what compels Opera Lafayette to stage an 18th century comic opera in its original French, then take it on the road to France, with a cast that doesn’t really speak French.

Opera Lafayette is a top-notch historical ensemble from D.C., specializing in baroque and classical operas performed with period instruments. Its current production is a modern debut of a by-now-forgotten opéra-comique from the debauched final decades of the Bourbon monarchy. Le Roi et le Fermier (The King and the Farmer) is the company’s first fully staged opera—-with props, lighting design and everything, said conductor Ryan Brown—-and it’s generated sufficient interest that they even snagged an invite to perform at the royal theater of Versailles, using the same sets as when Marie Antoinette starred in it in 1780. Not bad for a bunch of hometown kids.

However this raises the bar in a few respects, language being one. Opera Lafayette has traditionally focused more on the the music side of things and less on the theatrics. And unlike most operas, opéras-comiques tend to have a fair amount of spoken dialogue. In the past, Opera Lafayette delivered dialogue and narration in English while singing in the original French. For Le Roi, the troupe gets around the language issue by trotting out a couple of real life French people to deliver the spoken parts while the singers mime between arias. It works, more or less.

Le Roi is a historical curiosity: It was one of the first comic operas to feature the king as a character. To do so in absolutist France might have been considered sacrilege; however the English, even before Charles and Camilla, were light years ahead of the French in not taking their royal family seriously. So Michel-Jean Sedaine, basing his libretto on Robert Dodsley’s play The King and the Miller of Mansfield, made all the characters English and thereby got to keep his head.

The plot, such as it is, hinges on that favorite trope of everyone from the ancient Greeks to Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, the undercover boss. Richard, royal inspector of Sherwood Forest, is distressed by the abduction of his fiancée Jenny by the wicked Lord Lurewel. Then Jenny shows up, having escaped. Then the king shows up, but Richard doesn’t recognize him. But Richard is nice to him and invites him over for dinner. Then Lord Lurewel shows up, and the king, now revealed, scolds Lurewel and magnanimously pays Jenny’s dowry.

It’s light stuff, but at its Kennedy Center debut Saturday, Opera Lafayette’s cast did a terrific job drawing out Le Roi’s simple charms. Sopranos Dominique Labelle, as Jenny, and Yulia Van Doren, as Richard’s sister Betsy, have a wonderful dynamic; in their duets, Van Doren’s plucky voice dances over and under Labelle’s steady intonation. Baritone William Sharp, as Richard, is conspicuously old to play the part of the naïve young lover. This happens a lot in opera, and is explained away as a need for singers to mature into their voices. But when Opera Lafayette has Thomas Dolié, a younger baritone with a richer timbre, stuck in a minor role, that’s really no excuse. The orchestra, for its part, gives its all to Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny’s score on their outmoded instruments. The valveless horns at times sound like strangled geese but, by the looks of them, you can’t blame the musicians.

It’s sometimes unclear how much of the opera’s humor derives from the original libretto and how much is from the anachronisms: the excessive simpering, the Raggedy-Ann makeup and powdered wigs. True to their mission, Opera Lafayette plays it straight, although the narration winks at Le Roi’s lesson in deference. We may love to see the boss put on overalls and get his nails dirty, but the message is clear: He’s always watching, so you better be on your best behavior. It’s a joke even a despot could love.

Opera Lafayette will present Le Roi et le Fermier at Lincoln Center in New York on Thursday and the Royal Opera in Versailles on Saturday, Feb. 4 and Sunday, Feb. 5. Tickets $25-$65 for New York; 45€–120€for Versailles.

Photo: Louis Forget