Archive | September, 2017

Bampton’s Salieri

13 Sep

It’s always good to welcome Bampton Classical Opera to St John’s, Smith Square for their annual visit.  Their performances are almost always of pieces that are new to me and they throw light on a type of opera that is hardly ever done otherwise.

This year, they returned to Salieri and to one of his very successful operas, La scuola di gelosia – or the School of Jealousy.  Written for Venice in 1778, it was revived in Vienna in the early 1780s with a a cast including Michael Kelly, Nancy Storace, Caterina Cavallieri and Francesco Bernucci.  Anyone familiar with the early performances of Mozart’s da Ponte operas will recognise those names.  It was, apparently, a big success in London in 1786 – though there haven’t been performances here since, so far as we know.  This performance was on 12 September.

The plot reminds me a lot of Marivaux’s plays.  There are two largely unhappy marriages – a Count and Countess where the Count goes philandering and a merchant who is intensely jealous of his wife.  There’s a servant who, seeing all this, isn’t at all certain whether he wants to marry his female colleague.  And there’s a lieutenant who argues that the jealous wife and husband should play it cool and make the other believe that they are unfaithful.  Various situations are manufactured to enable the moral of the piece to be prepared – it’s an opera that plays with feelings and emotions but without the skill of Marivaux or, indeed, da Ponte.

Which brings me to the main problem.  Anyone with the faintest knowledge of Mozart’s operas will recognise links to Le nozze di Figaro and  Cosi fan tutte.  You will be comparing. There are undoubtedly similarities and, since da Ponte provided  some additional numbers for the Vienna performances, it’s inconceivable that he and Mozart didn’t know the piece when, a very few years later they were working on their masterpieces.  Which is a real problem when the Countess has a cavatina bemoaning her loneliness and another one planning to bring her husband back and neither of them bear a patch, at least on this showing, to their equivalents in Figaro.

It also brings me to the Bampton problem.  This was an opera written for a sophisticated audience and for sophisticated, starry singers.  Bampton has many qualities – curiosity and enthusiasm among them, but you can’t really call it sophisticated.  I don’t know whether this is a really poor, uninspired libretto with rather lame situations and a structure that Mozart and da Ponte drew on and improved significantly, or whether it suffered from Gilly French’s jolly hockey sticks cliché-ridden translation, with effortful rhymes that made it seem incredibly remote and safe.  Perhaps a more dangerous production than Jeremy Grey’s might have caught some ambiguities and interest in the relationships.  And perhaps some real stars could have made a better case for the music.

As it was, Grey’s production was amiably effective enough without particularly helping any of his soloists to project any depth of character.  Anthony Kraus’s conducting struck me as needing an ounce or two more sparkle: tempi struck me as a notch too cautious and the very decent young singers simply didn’t have the level of experience or sense of style that, I imagine, would have been displayed in Vienna in 1782.

Best, I thought, was Alessandro Fisher as the Count – displaying a very pleasing Mozartian tenor, a strong sense of style and some engaging acting.  Rhiannon Llewellyn made her best stab at some cruelly taxing arias and came out on top, just.  Matthew Sprange needed much better direction to make the jealous Blasio credible or interesting (and, possibly, better arias).  Nathalie Chalkley made a nice, vivacious Ernestina (his wife, who did some of her feistier numbers rather well).  Thomas Herford was an engaging Lieutenant and Samuel Pantchoff made a very alert, promising Lumaco (the servant).

Despite their best efforts, the piece came across as rather dull.  The arias didn’t strike me as being a patch on anything by Mozart, though they were pleasant enough.  There is quite an engaging quintet and an Act I finale that isn’t a million miles from the Rossini of Turco in Italia or pietra del paragone.  But, somehow, just not quite there.  The situations seemed contrived, the recitative lumbering and I wasn’t really sure that it added up to anything in the end.

There is, apparently, a CD and there have been productions in Italy and Vienna with another one mooted for Uruguay.  Whether this actually amounts to a “new wave of popularity”, as Jeremy Grey suggested in the programme, strikes me as debatable (a ripple of interest, possibly).  On this showing, I wouldn’t cross the street (let alone the Channel or the Atlantic) to see it again.  If, however, a suitably starry cast and interesting director were to try it in London, I might just give it another go.

Sorry if this is churlish.  I am grateful for the opportunity to see it.

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