If you know you’re going to see an opera, and all you know is that it’s by Wagner or Puccini, you can probably take a guess at what kind of opera it’s going to be. This isn’t the case for French composer Charles Gounod, whose 200th birthday Odyssey Opera celebrates this autumn with two of his less appreciated works. September presented the United States premiere of the Biblical tragedy grand opera “La Reine de Saba,” and this Friday evening marked the Boston premiere of Gounod’s opéra comique “Le Médecin Malgré Lui” (The Doctor In Spite of Himself), based on a farce by Molière. One can take heart in knowing that while style and subject matter may wildly vary between Odyssey’s operas, the quality of singers and musicians remains consistently solid. Gil Rose has a knack for finding the right voices.
The story: Loutish lumberjack Sganarelle strikes his wife Martine with a stick, and she vows revenge. Two servants of local old moneybags Geronte shortly walk by looking for a doctor, and Martine sends them into the woods after Sganarelle, swearing he’s an eccentric physician and instructing them to beat him up if he denies it. The doctor’s services are needed to cure Geronte’s suddenly dumbstruck daughter, the lovely Lucinde, who’s faking illness so she won’t be wrested away from her beau Léandre and married off to someone she doesn’t like. With help from a gibberish Latin lecture and a deus ex machina, everyone lives happily ever after.
Dan Daly’s sets did a lot with a little on the Huntington Avenue Theatre stage, making many uses of a curved staircase. Stage director Daniel Pelzig deftly handled some of Molière’s more 21st-century-unfriendly humor. This production’s Sganarelle is a boozy fool and a flirt, but not a wife-beater; the marital spat that sets off the central conflict includes no more violence than Martine being playfully spanked with the straw end of a broom. (The double entendre in the phrase “watch out for my stick, darling” was helpful there.)
Specific to this cast, Sganarelle is portrayed by the magnificent black baritone Stephen Salters; the beating he received from the two servants, both white singers, was cartoonish enough to avoid reminders of racist violence. That said, such reminders were unavoidable when a noose was placed around Salters’s neck, which says more about our country’s history than the production itself.
With the original spoken dialogue swapped out in favor of 1924 recitatives composed by idiosyncratic modernist Erik Satie,) the solid cast sang through the opera, Gil Rose in the pit leading a trim chamber orchestra. At points some singers fell off the pulse, but they always reunited quickly.
Salters was in prime comic voice, milking a first act drinking song and later holding Géronte’s household and the audience rapt with rapid-fire fake diagnoses. Odyssey newcomer tenor Piotr Buszewski (Léandre) sounded like he was fraying at parts, but he soldiered through and pulled out his high C when he needed it.
Baritone James Demler was a gloriously puffed-up Géronte, and mezzos Tascha Anderson and Whitney Robinson made memorable company debuts as the tricky nursemaid Jacqueline and Sganarelle’s indomitable wife Martine, respectively. Also new to the company, Kristen Watson (Lucinde) acted with her whole face when she was pretending to be mute, and unveiled a sparky, winsome soprano voice at the opera’s dénouement. Her onstage father may have wanted her to be silent again, but it’s likely he was alone in that sentiment.
At Huntington Avenue Theatre, Friday. Repeats Sunday. 617-826-1626, www.odysseyopera.orgZoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.