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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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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.

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.