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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Tim Ashley

The Chevalier review – fascinating but flawed look at an extraordinary musician

David Joseph as Mozart with Chukwudi Iwuji as  Joseph Bologne in the Chevalier.
Outsiders … David Joseph as Mozart with Chukwudi Iwuji as Joseph Bologne in the Chevalier. Photograph: Mark Allan

‘We are all outsiders, aren’t we Chevalier,” Marie Antoinette remarks to Joseph Bologne in Bill Barclay’s The Chevalier, a play with music, first seen in Tanglewood in 2019, and now in London, in an abridged version, for a single evening after a performance in Snape last weekend. It forms part of the reassessment of Bologne’s extraordinary career. One of the first ever classical composers of colour, he was the leading violinist of his day and, for a while, Antoinette’s music teacher. The title Chevalier de Saint-Georges was bestowed on him by Louis XV for his prowess at fencing. Later, after the revolution, he led the first Black army regiment in Europe.

Barclay sets his play in 1778/9, when Mozart was also in Paris, living in the same building as Bologne, who was then teaching Antoinette at Versailles. All three are in different ways outsiders, their lives scrutinised by Choderlos de Laclos, a disaffected insider, author of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and later Bologne’s librettist.

Art and politics intertwine in conversations between composer and queen, where he argues for egalitarianism in chamber music in the face of her preference for leading instruments and hierarchical structures. In the background, a new far right is emerging, making horribly familiar noises about the deportation of immigrants: Bologne, prejudicially refused directorship of the Opéra, eventually becomes a victim of racist violence in a Paris street.

Braimah Kanneh-Mason (standing, left) with Chukwudi Iwuji and David Joseph in The Chevalier.
Forcefully portrayed … Braimah Kanneh-Mason (standing, left) with Chukwudi Iwuji and David Joseph in The Chevalier. Photograph: Mark Allan

Fascinating though it is, however, the evening has flaws. The narrative seems sometimes cramped, sometimes blurred, and the original, fuller text might have been preferable here. The actors are amplified, resulting in moments of distortion in the echoey acoustic of St Martin’s, which is the wrong venue for it (the back projections that were part of the Snape performance are absent).

The performances are decent, with Merritt Janson the unhappy Antoinette, David Joseph a scruffily impish Mozart and Barclay himself, shrewd and witty, as Laclos. Bologne himself is forcefully portrayed both by actor Chukwudi Iwuji and violinist Braimah Kanneh-Mason, who plays excerpts from Bologne’s concertos, alongside other of his works, with the London Philharmonic under Matthew Kofi Waldren. His music, rooted in 18th century French tradition, has echoes of Gluck and prefigures Cherubini. There are some attractive symphonic and concertante movements and a Violin Sonata in A major that is quite simply exquisite.

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