Salieri’s Grotta di Trofonio

16 Sep

Bampton Classical Opera’s devoted excavation of operas from the second half of the 18th Century has unearthed Salieri’s La grotto di Trofonio. It was first performed in 1786, just before Mozart’s Figaro and this was the first UK production in modern times (though there’s a recording of it) – probably the first ever performances of it here in the form presented at the first night.  For those unfamiliar with Bampton Classical Opera, it provides annual productions of rare operas of this period in the gardens at Bampton and elsewhere. They bring one of their productions each year for a single performance at St John’s Smith Square.  I caught their performance of this piece on 15th September. Overall, I’m glad I did.

It’s a mildly amusing piece. Aristone has to daughters: Ofelia, who is studious, and Dori, who is lively. They are loved, respectively, by the studious Artemidoro and the lively Plistene. All looks fine for a wedding until the men go into a cave owned by the philosopher/magician Trofonio and turn out with their opposite personalities, to the consternation of the girls. They go back into the cave and are transformed back to their old personalities, at which point Trofonio lures the girls in with the same results. It all works out in the end.

Shakespeare had a similar sort of device in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as did WS Gilbert with his “magic lozenge” idea and you can see parallels with Cosi fan tutte. The problem here is that the libretto does not create the same opportunities for confusion or for exploring different emotions or combinations of lovers: there’s no suggestion that the parties learn anything from the experience. Da Ponte (who was in Vienna, but had had a row with Salieri) would surely have done it better.

Salieri’s music is attractive. It sounds like Mozart with the certainty taken out. There is gorgeous woodwind writing, some fizzy comic numbers and one or two very pleasant arias. The music for Trofonio and his demons is strong. I wanted to hear more Salieri following this, though had the impression that his orchestration and use of instrumentation is much more interesting than his vocal writing or his dramatic instincts – how far that was to do with the performance is difficult to say.  In his very informative programme note, Jeremy Gray, Bampton’s presiding genius, artistic director and director of this production, talks up the similarities with Mozart’s later operas, particularly Figaro and Cosi (many of the same singers were involved) and suggests that this may have an influenced them. I’m not sure that the comparison helps this opera. There are no heartstopping melodies, none of the certainty of the emotions and little of the comic timing. You keep thinking that Mozart would have made so much more of the situations and the arias. There are a couple of very fine extended finales, but this performance couldn’t avoid them being simply a series of individual numbers – you don’t notice that in Mozart’s collaborations with da Ponte.  Insofar as there are influences, I think they would have been about Mozart thinking how much better he could do it.

Yet this was a tremendous success at its first performance, with 25 performances in its first season. I wonder how far that was to do with what sounds like a brilliant cast – Nancy Storace (the first Susanna) as Ofelia, Benucci (the first Figaro) as Trofonio, the first Count as Plistene and the first Ferrando as Artemidoro – together with resources that Bampton could only dream about. As I sat through this performance, I unworthily but longingly wondered what a cast made of, say, Bartoli, Persson, Schrott, Pisaroni and Breslik would make of it.

And this is the rub. Bampton deserves huge gratitude for letting us experience these pieces but it tends to be hamstrung by the almost home-made aspects of the show – a sort of English amateurishness that is probably beguiling in gardens at Bampton in the strawberries and cream season but looks just a bit thin at St John’s on a damp autumnal evening in September.

It starts with the translation. In principle, I’m all in favour of doing these pieces in English, but gratitude for that turns to irritation when the translation seems to sacrifice sense for fairly predictable rhyme (or, too often, pretty optimistic assonance), is full of words like “really” and other indicators of a translator desperate to fill in a couple more syllables and word order goes all over the place. You get the gist of what’s going on but I’m not sure that it does anyone, least of all the cast and the music, any favours.

There’s also a knowing jokiness about Jeremy Gray’s productions that doesn’t really carry through. Trofonio’s cave is a Tardis and he looks like one of the seedier incarnations of Dr Who. It’s a pleasant enough idea that doesn’t go very far. And the ambience is a bit student-ish: a happy vicarage garden summer romp where you don’t really worry about the relatively amateurish, rather creaky sets and costumes that don’t quite fit. Grey directs well enough as a traffic policeman and has some very nice ideas, particularly around the changes of character which were really well done, but doesn’t help his singers get particularly into character.

The musical side, however, was rather impressive. The singers are young and assured even if they don’t match the names that I’ve mentioned above. Aiofe O’Sullivan makes a lively Dori and I really enjoyed her singing, Christopher Turner a studious Artemidoro who sang his Act II aria very well.  I think he’d be a splendid Ottavio or Ferrando.. Nicholas Merryweather has a very pleasing voice indeed for this sort of music and was a lively, very safe pair of hands of Plistene – again, I can see him as a Count or Guglielmo. As Trofonio, Matthew Stiff displayed a very strong bass voice and a good stage presence and James Harrison bumbled effectively as Aristone.

Disappointingly, Anna Starushkevych, who was meant to sing Ofelia couldn’t get a visa in time to enable her to turn up. The role was sung with impressive assurance at extreme short notice by Caroline Backhouse and acted by Marieke Bernard-Berkel, one of the ASMs. Both did as well as you could possibly ask under the circumstances but I’ve no doubt that it didn’t help the performance nor that the effectiveness of what is meant to be one of the finest arias – Ofelia’s in Act II – was compromised, however well Miss Backhouse sang it.  I’d like to hear her again under happier circumstances.

Paul Wingfield conducted surely and stylishly and Chroma played with impressive fluency, given the that this was the only performance of the work that they were giving. It sounded good and I hugely enjoyed the elegance and imagination of Salieri’s orchestral writing.

Whatever the imperfections of the performance, I was delighted to have the chance to see my first piece by Salieri. I’d like to see some more.

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