One act entertainments

20 Sep

One act operas always have a bit of a rough time in terms of performance so, as a collector of operatic rarities, I tend to snap them up when I have the opportunity.  The last week gave me the chance to see three.  All were pièces d’occasion from the mid 18th century and, while none were pieces I’d particularly want to see ever again, they were mostly worth the visit.

Two came out of Bampton Classical Opera’s welcome annual visits to John’s Smith Square on 13th September:  Gluck’s Philemon and Baucis and Arne’s Judgement of Paris.

The Gluck appears likely to be receiving its first staged performance since 1769.  Frankly, I’m not surprised.  It was written as one act of a larger group for the court at Parma.  That court could call on the services of a very remarkable soprano and the most notable aria in the piece – an astonishing florid, high-lying (think Konstanze, Blondchen and Zerbinetta and then add a bit) that seems entirely unsuitable for a simple Shepherdess.  As an aria, though, it’s exciting.  The opera itself has about zero plot interest, a selection of pleasant arias and, at 45 minutes in length, just about manages to avoid outstaying its welcome.  It’s stately, comfortable, pleasant and cultured and has absolutely nothing of any interest to say: it says quite a lot about the courts in the ancien regime.

The Arne is a setting from 1744 of a Congreve text written about half a century earlier.  Most of us know the plot: three goddesses in a beauty competition.  So far as I could tell, Congreve avoids mentioning the most famous part of it – the involvement of Helen of Troy.  Here Venus wins by the sheer voluptuous seductiveness of her arias.  The airs in the opera are pleasant enough, though not nearly as fine as those for his later Artaxerxes.  The best number is a trio for the three goddesses.  The text, what I could hear of it, struck me as elegant rather than witty.

Jeremy Gray decided to set them both in an airport and, for the goddess scene in Paris, on the plane itself.  It’s probably no worse than any other completely irrelevant situation and didn’t throw any great interpretative light on the operas.  Since, I doubt that any form of lighting could make them look interesting, I don’t complain.  The gags were pretty obvious: the safety announcement done by the goddesses as air hostess in the trio, a sick bag for Paris during a spot of turbulence, an intrusive security guard.  The apple is one of that company’s products.  You get the picture.  It was done gamely enough and I found myself smiling indulgently.

The musical side wasn’t bad.  Paul Wingfield conducted Chronos elegantly and without it being particularly obvious that this was the only performance of the operas that they were doing.  They were hidden behind the set, which seemed rather hard luck.  Barbara Cole Walton, a new name to me, sang Baucis and Juno.  In the former she made an astonishingly secure and confident performance of that aria – better than we had any right to expect in this context.  If she can get a bit more heft and a little more personality, she’ll be rather major.  Caroline Backhouse as Philemon and Pallas, has a warm, juice mezzo and was very elegant in the Gluck, funny in the Arne. Aiofe O’Sullivan was understandably successful as Venus.  Christopher Turner sang the main tenor roles – Jupiter and Paris, securely, intelligently and acted gamely.  Robert Anthony Gardiner sang Hermes’s aria rather well.  Gilly French’s decent translation of the Gluck came over rather better than Congreve’s original – the words there not clear at all.

Bampton have also done Haydn’s La canterina which the Classical Opera Company did as a concert performance at Wigmore Hall on 19th September.  It was probably written in 1766 which is the year that the company’s currently exploring.  I suspect they would have done it with more vigour, if less elegance.

It’s Haydn’s first opera – a short, 40 minute or so intermezzo in a couple of parts written for an Archduke-let’s birthday.  The story is a cynical little comedy about sex and money where two women dupe two men out their money.  It’s slight and, in the right hands probably quite amusing. There are four arias and two short quartet finales.

The piece summed up my problem with Haydn’s operas which is that they aren’t really that good as operas.  One of the main arias here is a lesson aria which the tenor has written in order to get close to the soprano.  The joke is that the bulk of it is for orchestra.  The problem is that it goes on too long.  Similarly, the soprano’s aria of remorse is possibly a witty parody of serious opera arias but it’s just not as acute as, say, Come scoglio and we don’t really know the originals well enough to get the joke.  It’s all pleasant enough music but I suspect that the piece has to be staged as a bit of romp before it will really make an effect.  For example, one of the women has disguised herself as an old woman: at the first performance it was done by a tenor in drag, singing falsetto.  There are loads of opportunities for gags, for over the top acting and general mugging to overcome the slightness of the musical content.

Here we had some very good young singers rather lost on the entirely inadequate Wigmore platform, doing their best to remember the recits and floundering in terms of acting and direction. They certainly didn’t have the room and probably hadn’t had the rehearsal to make much of an impression.  Still Susanna Hurrell made a flighty Gasparina, Rachel Kelly displayed a beautiful voice if little personality as Appollina, Robert Murray had the most to do as Don Pelagio the landlord/music teacher and did his best.  I wasn’t convinced he was in best voice.  Kitty Whately as Don Ettore was effective enough though it would have been nice to have had aria.  I smiled at some of the arias and at the surtitles and wished that it had been a stronger staging and in English.

Before that we had heard Haydn’s 34th Symphony and four arias of Myslivicek’s Semiramide.  Shorn of their context, it was rather difficult to get a feel for them.  They came across as good, vigorous, intelligent arias of their time without necessarily justifying their place on the programme.  Each of the singers sang them well enough.

Ian Page conducted the Classical Opera Orchestra with wit and intelligence and it all made for a pleasant enough evening even if, for me, it didn’t add up to much.

So three more the collection.  I’m glad I saw them, even if I wish that the Haydn had been given more of a chance to make an impression.  I can’t say that I’ll be rushing back to see any of them again and your lives will not be wasted if you give them a miss.

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