Bampton Classical Opera, Westonbirt School (Gloucs), 28 August
Over the past quarter of a century Bampton Classical Opera (BCO) has established an unrivalled record for the revival of later 18th century operas, including a number of UK first performances. Among these is Salieri’s Falstaff, today recognised as one the composer’s finest operas. For its 2017 production, given at Bampton, Westonbirt School and St John’s Smith Square, BCO turned to an earlier Salieri opera, La scuola de’ gelosi, first performed at the Teatro San Moise in Venice in 1778 and revived with some new music five years later at the Burgtheater in Vienna to inaugurate the new Italian opera company. Thereafter it became one of Salieri’s most popular operas, with performances not only throughout Italy, but also in Germany, London and St Petersburg.
A dramma giocoso in two acts, La scuola has a libretto by Caterino Mazzolà (later to achieve lasting fame as the adaptor of Metastasio’s La clemenza di Tito for Mozart’s final opera) owing much to the comedies of Goldoni. Like many of them, it introduces three distinct social classes: a Count and Countess – the latter a mezzo carattere role that includes a superb seria accompaganato and aria ‘Or ei con Ernestina’ … ‘Ah sia già de miei sospiri’ – a merchant and his wife, and a male and female servant. The cast is completed by the Lieutenant, the Don Alfonso-like manipulator of the goings-on that form a storyline revolving around the efforts of the Count, a small-time predator like Figaro’s Almaviva rather than a Don Giovanni, to seduce the merchant Blasio’s wife, Ernestina, thus invoking the jealousy of the Countess and Blasio. The Lieutenant advises them to turn the tables and make their spouses jealous. After a series of farcical events the ploy works, the lessons learned in the ‘school of jealousy’ bring reunion and happiness to all. The richly varied score is remarkable perhaps above all for its ensembles, in particular the act 1 trio for the Countess, Count and Lieutenant, and the act 2 quintet that broke new ground in 1778 by being the largest ensemble piece to be introduced into the middle of an act.
As is customary with BCO, the opera was given in an English translation that amused the Westonbirt audience with its introduction of such topical terms as ‘fake news’. The set design, costumes and production (by Jeremy Gray) itself were unexceptionably traditional, with folding panels that could with ease change the rooms from the rich blue of the Count’s salon to the more bourgeois surroundings of Blasio’s house. The costumes were slightly post-dated to Biedermeier (Blasio resembled an older Schubert).
The performance in the Orangery Terrace at Westonbirt School on 28 August was my first experience of BCO. For a company that specialises in later 18th opera there were several surprising elements. The first was the use of modern instruments rather than period instruments, which I understand are used because BCO’s main performances at their home in Bampton are open air, always a problem for period strings. It did not work at Westonbirt, being not only too loud for the space but played with a lack of finesse only enhanced by the rigid four-square rhythms of Anthony Kraus’ direction. Matthew Sprange’s Blasio dominated the cast, his richly rounded and well-focussed baritone a source of pleasure throughout the evening. None of the rest of the cast came up to this level, although Nathalie Chalkley brought a lively personality if at times shrill voice to the role of Ernestina. I derived little pleasure from Rhiannon Llewellyn’s singing of the Countess, finding her tone too insecure in the upper range, though I suspect the acoustic was not very kind to her voice. The tenor parts of the Count (Alessandro Fisher) and Lieutenant (Thomas Herford) were decently sung, though the weak lower range of the latter resulted in him being frequently overpowered by the orchestra. The other major surprise, again bearing in mind this is a company specialising in this repertoire, was the lack of appoggiaturas and absence of cadential flourishes and ornamentation. It all served to give the performance a curiously old-fashioned feel. But I don’t want to end on a negative note. Although greater attention to style would make its achievements even more significant, Bampton Classical Opera is doing a sterling job in a still undervalued repertoire