Le Cinesi

Gluck

Information

Christoph Willibald Gluck
LE CINESI
Libretto by Pietro Metastasio
English translation by Murray Hipkin

Whichford House, 17 June 2008
The Orangery terrace, Westonbirt, 24 and 25 August 2008
Music at Wotton, 4 October 2008

Cast

Sivene Martene Grimson
Tangia
Serena Kay
Lisinga Lina Markeby
Silango Tom Raskin
Conductors Murray Hipkin (June, October)
Christian Curnyn (August)
Director Jeremy Gray

The Bampton Classical Players, on period instruments

Persephone Gibbs, Camilla Scarlett violin; Alexandria Laurence, Malgosia Ziemkewitz viola; Emily Robinson ‘cello; Kate Aldridge double bass; Hannah Riddell flute; Mark Radcliffe, Joel Raymond oboe; Kate Goldsmith, Alistair Rycroft horn.

Synopsis

Le cinesi presents a salutary lesson in how best to alleviate boredom.  Three Chinese ladies, confined in the womens' quarters but illicitly joined by a young man newly returned from Europe, decide that play-acting might be a fashionable and novel form of amusement.  Following an argument about which genre is most appropriate, Silango proposes that each of them should present a contrasting scene to the others. Lisinga plays Andromache in a tragic scene from ancient Greece.  Sivene chooses a pastoral theme: as Licoris the shepherdess she urges her ardent lover, Thyrsis (a role assumed by Silango) to control his amorous urges or lose her affections. Jealous Tangia pokes fun at Silango’s European affectations in a satirical monologue by a young fop who believes himself irresistible to all women.  A heated debate ensues in which tragedy is judged too exaggerated, pastoral too cloying, and comedy too offensive.  Silango diplomatically proposes that the ladies abandon their dramatic aspirations and learn to dance instead.

Reviews

genuine enjoyment and engagement
Opera Today, 29 July 2009

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genuine enjoyment and engagement

Opera Today, 29 July 2009

Performances by Bampton Classical Opera are typically noteworthy for two principal aspects: first, the company repeatedly presents classical-period rarities which surprise and delight, and second, they do so with wit, energy and musico-dramatic vision, often employing quirky, fresh translations.

These concert performances of two little-known ‘pre-reform’ works by Gluck - La danza (1755) and Le cinesi (1754) - on the small stage at the Wigmore Hall certainly confirmed the company’s commitment to undeservedly neglected works of the early classical period, and consistently high musical standards served to convince the audience of the merit and beauty of these unfamiliar treasures.

Before he had the good fortune, at almost 50 years-of-age, to become acquainted with the group of ‘reformers’ gathered at the Viennese court - theatre Intendant, Count Durazzo; poet, Raniero de Calzabigi; choreographer, Angiolini; and designer, Quaglio — Gluck was a moderately successful composer of Metastasian opera seria. His reputation today derives largely from his status as ‘reformer’ - as exemplified by his later, innovative, operas, Orfeo ed Euridice, Alceste and the two stories of Iphigénie.

The Preface to Alceste (1767) set forth the new operatic creed. Gluck professed his desire to diminish the pre-eminence of the voice as a virtuoso solo instrument, to create greater continuity of design, and to unite the dramatic action with the emotional expression of the musical score. However, as the esteemed musicologist Winton Dean has remarked, ‘[t]here never was a “reformer” so little in advance of his age and so perfectly adapted to swimming with the current rather than against it’. Gluck certainly had no inherent distaste for the traditional Italian vocal style. For more than twenty-years he had been purveying ‘old-style’ opera seria in the courts of Europe, and indeed he did not abandon the genre after the success of Orfeo (1762), going on to set three more libretti by Metastasio in the 1760s. But, while he may not have been a radical, preferring to ‘lead from behind’, Gluck clearly recognised a good opportunity when he saw one — and it is this practical awareness of musical and dramatic context, coupled with the ability to maximise his own skills, which is equally evident in these two ‘pre-reform’ works. Like his later operas, they are both characterised by a supreme feeling for melody, a sure sense of balance, and by a keen ear for instrumental colour and texture.

La danza is typical of Gluck’s operas in that it presents a mythological situation as a vehicle for making general declarations about human nature. Composed in 1755 for the birthday of the future Emperor Leopold II, it presents a conversation between the delightful nymph, Nice, who is required to dance at a forthcoming festival, and her beloved, the shepherd, Tirsi, who fears that her beauty will undoubtedly attract other suitors and lead inevitably to her infidelity. In a sequence of alternating arias, the lovers - whose romance must, for reasons not disclosed, be kept secret - discourse on love and jealousy, fear and betrayal, honesty and faithfulness, closing with a rather inconclusive duet (repeated, perhaps to lend greater conviction to its sentiments …) in which they both declare, ‘I was born to yearn — for you alone’ (‘Per te sola … io son nato a sospirar’).

Originally described as a ‘componimento drammatico pastorale’, this short work is in fact distinctly lacking in dramatic development or momentum; but, nevertheless, the debate between the suspicious shepherd and the self-composed nymph ranges through various emotional and human dilemmas, and the lyricism and sincerity of the vocal lines is enhanced by an array of instrumental colours and textures - the cor anglais, oboes and horns which suggest Tirsi’s anxiety and forthrightness in the opening aria, giving way to gentle string colours, tinted by the bassoon, to complement Nice’s protestation of fidelity and steadfastness. The Bampton Classical Players, performing on period instruments and led from the harpsichord by Christian Curnyn, provided sensitive and alert support throughout; while the instrumental parts lack contrapuntal interest, the context does not in fact require it, and colour and timbre introduce a dramatic element.

The two principals, Martene Grimson (Nice) and Nicholas Sharratt (Tirsi), proved themselves equally adept at attaining the ‘beautiful simplicity’ which Gluck declared to be his aspiration. Sharratt’s rich, warm, lower register suitably conveyed the shepherd’s earnestness and concern, and he skilfully applied appropriate nuance to particular textual phrases to add weight and dimension to the sketched character. While her articulation of the Italian text was less precise, Grimson confidently tackled a virtuosic part; at the top of her range her voice has an impressive accuracy, clarity and attack, which she employed to convey the nymph’s insistent assertions of her honesty and dependability, and she nimbly despatched the rapid passage work.

Despite the fact that the work is in essence a simple cantata, it was perhaps a shame that the two soloists preferred to sing directly to the audience, rather than to each other, Grimson remaining quite self-contained even in the final duet. The two music-stands, isolated to the right and left of the conductor, exacerbated the absence of dramatic engagement, which was a pity since the gentle, tender interchanges between the two characters were serenely and affectively sung.

There was more dramatic vitality post-interval in Le cinesi, composed by Gluck for a festival in 1754. In that year, Empress Maria Theresa had appointed Gluck opera Kapellmeister to the court theatre in Vienna, a post which required him to compose in the livelier, more flexible style of the fashionable French opéras comiques. The composer put his familiarity with various operatic styles and conventions to good use in this opera - a forerunner in the genre of ‘opera about opera’. The scenario is trivial but charming and concise. Three ‘Chinese’ ladies, wile away a tedious evening, confined to the women’s quarters, when they are surprisingly joined by an illicit male interloper from Europe. As romantic attractions begin to surface, they determine to pass the time by play-acting, each of the ladies selecting a different genre - seria, pastorale and buffa. The lone male, Silango, is charged with judging the various merits of the contrasting styles, and their performers. After much melodramatic self-advertisement, flirtatious coquetry and jealous sniping, Silango tactfully suggests that the ladies should abandon their dramatic aspirations and put all their energies into dancing.

First performed in 2008, this production was recently revived at the 2009 Cheltenham festival, and the four soloists slipped quickly and effectively into their roles. Metastasio is not known for his sense of humour - indeed, this is his only ‘comic’ libretto; but the singers made much of the potential for caricature and irony, although some of the anachronisms of Murray Hipkin’s new translation were a little grating. Lina Markeby conveyed the moral self-righteousness and pomposity of the haughty Lisinga to great effect; Tom Raskin was a raffish Silango, suave and confident; while Serena Kay pouted and preened as the feisty Tangia, envious of Silango’s regard for the serene beauty of Sivene (Martene Grimson). The demands, technical and musical, of the long da capo arias, delivered by each principal in turn, are not inconsiderable, but they presented few obstacles to these performers, and Christian Curnyn effectively ensured that dramatic pace and momentum were sustained. Grimson was perhaps feeling the effects of having to perform two demanding roles in one evening for, while she rose to the challenges at the climax of her aria, some of her passage work was a little ragged, with intonation and rhythmic accuracy less than secure. But, overall, the sense of genuine enjoyment and engagement which all the soloists conveyed made one long to see the fully staged production revived once more.

Once again, a performance by Bampton Classical Opera left this listener amazed that such works are not more frequently performed, and convinced that there must be a wealth of unfamiliar repertoire from the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries that deserves to be resurrected and celebrated — certainly when historical integrity and musical standards are as high as this.

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Claire Seymour

 

…continuously enjoyable… mainly excellent
The Spectator 29 July 2009

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…continuously enjoyable… mainly excellent

The Spectator 29 July 2009

I enjoyed much more Bampton Classical Opera’s double bill of early Gluck at the Wigmore Hall... La danza and Le cinesi are comic divertissements, dismissed by Martin Cooper, in the best book I know on Gluck, in the haughtiest terms. Musical parody is notoriously a form in which success is rare, and Gluck may be the least likely composer, together with Bach, to bring it off. In fact, he incorporated several of the arias we heard here in later, serious works. Even so, the send-up of Andromache being the tragedy queen, of artless pastoral amorousness, and self-advertising conceit make for interesting, characteristically inventive music, and the performance, a purely concert one, was continuously enjoyable, with lively accompaniments under Christian Curnyn... The singers were mainly excellent, with the commanding Martene Grimson making a strong impression…

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Michael Tanner

 

just right… excellent
Opera Now, November/December 2008 Early Music Today, October/November 2008

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just right… excellent

Opera Now, November/December 2008 Early Music Today, October/November 2008

Bampton Classical Opera has a habit of putting on out-of-the-way operas; previous seasons hve seen productions of operas by Arne, Benda, Gazzaniga, Soler, Salieri and Storace to name just a few.  This season was no exception; a productions of Ferdinando Paer’s Leonora, and this, a period-performance in English of two minature operas: Gluck’s one-act gentle comedy about alleviating boredom, and Mozart’s first stab at an opera, written at the age of 12.

The setting was a sunny yet windy (which caused a variety of minor problems dealt with well and amusingly by the cast) corner of the spectacular main building of Westonbirt School in Gloucestershire; a vast, 19th-century mansion in some beautiful grounds.  Despite the period orchestra, the open-air set, designed as the women’s quarters of a Chinese house, had a number of modern touches.  It was simple but effective, and remained the same for both operas; the Olympic Rings that adorned the wall were equally suitable for China and Ancient Greece.

Gluck’s opera is an opera about nothing at all, but the cast turned his only real attempt at Italian comedy into an amusing divertissement.  Three girls are joined illicitly by a man in their quarters, and decide to each try their hand at opera.  One chooses tragedy, one pastoral, one comedy – with an additional love interest thrown in to the plot for good measure.  Each singer gets an aria – these were all pleasant and well-sung, particularly the pastoral tenor aria – and at the end they all decide to learn to dance instead.  Director Jeremy Gray got the production just right here, and the singers were excellent.

Mozart’s opera is also very much an opera in minature – one is whipped through the plot in little more than an hour.  The music is pleasant, if understandably more traditional I form than Mozart’s later operas and with little time for any development of the characters.  It was staged as though the Chinese women from the first half were performing, a neat touch that also got round  problems of scenery and costume changes.

Again, the singers, most of whom had sung in the Gluck, were mainly excellent, the highlight being Martene Grimson as Melia, who had the choicest arias and took advantage of it.  Tom Raskin was strong both in the Gluck and as King Oebalus, and Lina Markeby and Serena Kay also shone.  The orchestra, directed by Christian Curnyn, could have been more in tune at times – though their tent was not the most accommodating venue in which to perform.  The only real flaw here was the production, which added moments of humour at the most inappropriate moments.  Zephyr trying to get a bucket off his head for a whole da capo aria whilst Hyacinth sings solemnly in praise of the gods; Melia throwing comedy plastic apples at Apollo when she thinks he has killed her brother.  It’s not necessary; why not give Mozart’s music a chance to speak for itself?

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Jonathan Wikely

 

…a triumph
The Oxford Times, October 2008

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…a triumph

The Oxford Times, October 2008

In keeping with their commitment to staging rare 18th-century opera, Bampton Clasical Opera directors Jeremy Gray and Gilly French have this year resurrected Mozart’s Apollo and Hyacinth, which they first staged as a joint education project with Queen’s College in London last year, and performed at Westonbirt School in Gloucestershire earlier this summer. On Saturday the opera enjoyed another outing, this time at Wotton House, near Aylesbury, a venue that suits Bampton’s small forces exceptionally well.

Apollo and Hyacinth may seem immature compared to Mozart’s later works — Don Giovanni it ain’t — but that’s hardly surprising when you discover that he wrote the piece at the age of 11. Yes, 11 — child prodigy stuff indeed. Suggestions that he may have had help from his father, Leopold, seem a little churlish, but probably hold more than an element of truth. Still, it hardly matters — the piece is entertaining enough, with some glorious music, plenty of comic moments, and enough tension to keep things swinging along.

The plot is based on the ancient myth of the transformation of Hyacinth, son of Oebalus, the King of Lacedaemonia, into a flower, after being killed by his jealous friend, Zephyr — who, just to complicate things, is also hoping to marry Hyacinth’s sister, the beautiful Melia. However, it is the god Apollo who eventually wins Melia’s hand, after having the murderous Zephyr carried away by the winds.

Gilly French’s new English translation occasionally jarred a little, and there were some rather clumsy attempts at humour — such as Apollo, disguised as a shepherd, entering with a toy lamb on wheels. But musically, the production was a triumph. Among a strong cast, tenor Tom Raskin stood out as an imposing and powerfully-sung Oebalus, but I also liked Martene Grimson’s spirited Melia, while Serena Kay (Apollo), Amanda Pitt (Hyacinth) and Lina Markeby (Zephyrus) made the most of the comic possibilities of their roles.

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Nicola Lisle

 

first class cast
The Wiltshire and Gloucestershire Echo, August 2008

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first class cast

The Wiltshire and Gloucestershire Echo, August 2008

The open-air setting is delightful with the Orangery and the fine school building forming a backcloth on two sides.  We began in a diluted sunshine and ended wearing our winter anoraks with rugs round our legs!  All typical of an English summer, except for the absence of rain!
 
This opera company specialises in lesser-known operas from the 18th century and on this occasion two short operas by Gluck and Mozart were performed on the small stage. Gluck's Le Cinesi (The Chinese Ladies) provides the opportunity for four singers to sing solos .To alleviate boredom each enacts a simple scene for the amusement of the others.  We in the audience were similarly amused but in particular were impressed by the fresh young voices, each displaying great flexibility and a pleasing tone as well as good acting ability.  I should mention the fiendishly difficult aria that Tom Raskin sang with aplomb.
 
It seems unbelievable that Mozart at the tender age of 11 years could have composed Apollo and Hyacinth on his own and I suspect that his talented father, Leopold, had a hand in it!  We hear the story of Apollo and Hyacinth and the jealous south wind Zephyr who blows Apollo's discus so that it kills Hyacinth.  Even if his father helped, the young Mozart 's music shows much poise and beauty for his tender years. Some of the arias may be rather static but others have original ideas. There is a lovely moment with a serene passage for strings and horns as Hyacinth dies and flowers grow from his grave.  Without exception the young singers were in fine voice with excellent diction.  All the cast needed to be versatile coloratura singers as the young composer provided many technical challenges for them. Perhaps I should highlight for special mention the superb voice of Martene Grimson who was quite outstanding in a first class cast that included Lina Markeby and Bampton regular Serena Kay.
 
The Bampton Classical Players on period instruments under conductor Christian Curnyn were a delight to listen to and accompanied faultlessly.

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Donald Hollins

 

Articles

“Drinking tea in various attitudes of deep abstraction”

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“Drinking tea in various attitudes of deep abstraction”

In the current economic climate of recession and a stagnant housing market, frustrated estate agents might wonder with bemusement at the efforts made in 1754 to effect a lucrative sale for the handsome Schlosshof an der March, one of the finest country house estates in the environs of Vienna.  It had recently been enlarged by its owner, the Imperial Field-Marshal Prince Joseph Friedrich of Sachsen-Hildburghausen, and he could hardly fail to be aware that the reputation of its improved charms had attracted the attention of the Empress Maria Theresa.  When it was announced that the Imperial family would pay a four-day visit in September, the Prince began to plan a series of entertainments that would not only demonstrate his own creative largesse but which would also show off his property in the best possible light. 

The Prince maintained a fine theatre and a justifiably famous musical establishment, and in Giuseppe Bonno (1711-1788), his Kapellmeister who was also Imperial court composer, he had a composer of sophistication and merit.  The plans drawn up for the delectation of the royal family took months of careful preparation and resulted in a three-day extravagance which has been called the “last Baroque celebration in Austria”.  Bonno composed two new opera-serenades to texts by Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782), the influential Caesarian court poet, and both were to make a strong impression on the royal visitors, the Emperor Francis and Empress Maria Theresa, their four children and a significant entourage of courtiers.  Il vero omaggio was performed in the garden Heckentheater on the afternoon of the party’s arrival and included a spectacular echo-symphony with horns, trumpets and woodwind concealed in the gardens some distance from the main band.  The work concluded with a ravishing duet for the famous court singers, Vittoria Tesi-Tramontini and Theresa Heinisch, who were suddenly joined by the voices of village men, women and children again secretly hidden in the wooded groves around the theatre, who, a report tells, “joined in perfectly with the orchestra and actresses without the slightest dissonance and in Italian as clearly and distinctly as native Italians” – “even the smallest children, aged seven or eight, sang out so expressively with full voice and extremely sweetly, that they quite touched the hearts of all present.”  Bonno’s second opera, L’isola disabitata, followed that same evening in the impressive Schlosstheater which was seductively decorated with trompe l’oeil paintings so that the actual audience felt as if they were surrounded by crowds of additional spectators dressed in masks.

The same theatre was the venue for the third musical entertainment, Le cinesi (The Chinese Ladies), performed the following day, 24th September.  Again Metastasio was the librettist, but the music was composed by Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787), who had been appointed leader of Prince Joseph’s orchestra on his return from Italy late in 1752.  The choice of libretto was critical in the scheme to flatter the Empress since she herself had sung the role of Lisinga nineteen years earlier in a first version of the script, set to music by Antonio Caldara – indeed, it may have been Maria Theresa herself who suggested the libretto as suitable for the Schlosshof entertainment.  Metastasio had already revised the libretto in 1751 for a Spanish court production with music by Nicola Conforto, at which point he introduced a male character to complement the original three female roles.  It was this expanded version which became the basis of Gluck’s one-act miniature ‘azione teatrale’. It was Gluck’s nearest approach to the tradition of Italian comedy and, in its modest way, a masterpiece.

The theme of this occasional piece is typical of a wave of indulgence for exotic chinoiserie which swept through aristocratic and royal Europe in the mid-eighteenth century.  In England, its most famous manifestation is the Pagoda of 1761 at Kew for the Princess Augusta, and its architect William Chambers had twice visited ‘Cathay’, recording his impressions in his Designs of Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines and Utensils published in 1757.  In fact most mid-century chinoiserie was merely an exoticized version of European rococo classicism and relied on the application of lattices, bells and dragons to designs which were orthodoxly classical in structure and symmetry. The delectable Chinese paintings of Francois Boucher, such as La peche chinoise and Le jardin chinois, are typical of this make-believe orientalism with their languid poses and shimmering air.

Le cinesi is therefore very much a child of fashion, and we need not expect much by way of oriental authenticity.  Metastasio’s slight story “takes place in a city in China” in “a room decorated in Chinese style, with a table and four chairs”.  It is a domestic comedy of manners and etiquette, in which the boredom of Lisinga and her two female friends (the libretto specifies that they are “drinking tea in various attitudes of deep abstraction”) leads to a sequence of homespun entertainments, a medley of contrasted European dramatic (that is to say, operatic) pieces – as Silango, the only male character, observes, “this art is common only in European countries; here in the East it’s still strange to us Chinese”. 

How these Chinese ladies might have known the European stories which they enact for each other’s entertainment is not made clear.  Lisinga is first to perform, presenting the heroic classical tragedy of Hector’s widow, Andromache, forced to choose between the life of her small son and the depraved love of Pyrrhus.  Lisinga’s brother Silango and Sivene act out a rustic flirtation as shepherd and shepherdess, and finally the envious Tangia satirizes this attachment in a comic scene about a Parisian dandy preening himself at his mirror.  Thus are neatly presented three genres of eighteenth-century opera – seria, pastorale, and buffaLe cinesi, far from being a piece of orientalism, is in fact an early example of the genre of opera-about-opera – a clashing juxtaposition of styles within a domestic setting which almost anticipates Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos.

We know from a detailed account by the young assistant and violinist at Schlosshof, Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739-1799) that Gluck introduced small percussion instruments (not notated in the score) as a colouristic quasi-oriental effect – “little bells, triangles, small tambourines and cymbals, and the like” – into the energetic Neapolitan-style overture.  They were also used in the final danced quartet, set as a polonaise which would seem more exotic than a predictable Viennese minuet.  This was intended as an invitation to the royal audience, encouraging “the most eminent guests to proceed to the brilliantly illuminated hall in the palace, decorated with many, many mirrors as well as crystal chandeliers and sconces” where, according to Dittersdorf, they danced for many hours. 
Most of the orientalism of the production was conveyed by the scenery and props which, according to Dittersdorf’s report, must have been highly impressive, involving the handiwork of “lacquerers, sculptors and gilders” as well as Bohemian glassworkers who produced a ravishing effect with numerous glass rods, filled with coloured oils to create a shimmering prismatic light. 

However slight the story, it is related with warmth and good-humour, and elevated by the considerable quality of the music. Mindful of the important occasion and inspired by a cast of outstanding singers, Gluck created a sequence of finely-characterised and contrasted numbers – overture, four arias and an ensemble – which show him at the height of his creative powers.  For Vittoria Tesi-Tramontini, a soprano “already over fifty years old but very well preserved and agreeable”, he wrote the role of Lisinga, which in the Caldara original had been sung by the young Maria Theresa.  In an extended scena he moves from secco recitativo to accompagnato, until in the B minor aria itself (which tellingly lacks the traditional da capo repeat and breaks off at the climax) he adds woodwind to convey the intense moral dilemma of the agonised Andromache.  The two major-key pastoral arias, in which Silango and Sivene act out the half-playful, half-serious love of Thyrsis and Licoris, are more conventional in structure and written for strings alone, but each is a model of sensitivity to text and character. Tangia’s parodic number is intended to goad Silango, and brilliantly conveys the swagger and affectation of male vanity.

Gluck was well rewarded for his work, receiving a generous fee of 100 ducats and a gold snuff-box from the Imperial couple.  More importantly it led to his promotion at the Court and a gradual succession of commissions and opportunities.  And as for Prince Joseph’s private agenda to sell his property, the Empress was enchanted with the whole sojourn – and so she bought the Schlosshof as a gift for her husband for the princely sum of 400,000 guilders.


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Production Photos