La grotta di Trofonio

Salieri

Information

La grotta di Trofonio

Opera comica in 2 acts

Music by Antonio Salieri, Vienna, 1785;
Libretto by Giovanni Battista Casti
English translation by Gilly French and Jeremy Gray

The Deanery garden, Bampton: 17, 18 July 2015
Westonbirt Orangery: 31 August 2015
St John's, Smith Square: 15 September 2015

 

Artistic director Jeremy Gray introduces Trofonio’s Cave

Cast

Aristone James Harrison
Dori, his daughter Aoife O'Sullivan
Ofelia, a more serious daughter Anna Starushkevych
Artemidoro, a philosophical young man, in love with Ofelia Christopher Turner
Plistene, in love with Dori Nicholas Merryweather
Trofonio, a magician Matthew Stiff
   
Conductor Paul Wingfield
Director Jeremy Gray             
Movement director Triona Adams

 

Synopsis

Act 1

Kindly Aristone is sympathetic to the marriage plans of his daughters Ofelia and Dori and wants only for their happiness.  He’s well aware that the girls are very different in spirit, but they have made sensible choices of boyfriends – Ofelia, who is happiest when she has a heavy tome of Greek philosophy in her hands, loves the sensible and caring Artemidoro; her younger sister Dori is a more cheerful girl, more inclined to partying than studying, and she has found the perfect match in her lively boyfriend Plistene.  How will their father plan a wedding reception to suit such different pairings and their guests?

Deep in a forest, there is a dark cave with magical properties and guarded by the venerable but capricious wizard Trofonio.  He can summon invisible spirits to perform his sometimes noble but sometimes malicious wishes.  The boys decide to go for a walk in the country and, coming across the cave and its hoary guardian, unwisely decide to investigate.  First Artemidoro, carrying his volume of Plato, enters in the expectation of enlightenment, and he is quickly followed by Plistene who’s in search of diversionary entertainment.  Each emerges from the other side of the cave quite transformed – Artemidoro can no longer think of dusty philosophy and cares only for fun; Plistene is delighted to pick up off the ground Artemidoro’s rudely discarded volume of Plato.  When their fiancées find them, they cannot believe their changed characters and assume they must be pretending or, worse, have gone quite mad.  When their father discusses the development of the wedding plans, they begin to have second thoughts.  Incredulity and bickering end the act in confusion.

Act 2

Aristone is having a hard time keeping the girls on track for their wedding.  The boys manage to get themselves sorted out and back to normal when they re-visit the cave, but the girls, who now go for a walk to clear their confused brains, unwisely fall into conversation with Trofonio.  As they are complaining about the heat, he coaxes them into the cool shade of the cave.  Aristone meets the boys and is relieved that their madness is dispelled.  Ofelia comes out of the cave, playful and giggling, whereas her sister is now prone to deep philosophical musings.  The men are bewildered.

Aristone intervenes and begs Trofonio to explain what has been going on.  The magician explains the secret of the cave, and once the girls have been pushed back into it, they emerge in their true characters.  Everyone is relieved and the weddings can now proceed as planned.  Trofonio fails to persuade the cautious Aristone to visit the cavern, but relishes the fun he has had, and his ability to put everything to right.
 

Reviews

a revelation... zany production and witty modern translation... the music is magnificent
Seen and Heard International, 20 July 2015

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a revelation... zany production and witty modern translation... the music is magnificent

Seen and Heard International, 20 July 2015

Where would Mozart be without Salieri? These thoughts passed through my mind as I watched Bampton Opera’s performance of the latter’s La Grotta di Tronfonio. Composed in 1785 it pre-dates Figaro, Così, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute, and one can’t help feeling that the younger composer must have drawn inspiration from Salieri’s story line and music. In his opera characters embark on a journey involving transformations which ultimately lead them to a better understanding of themselves. Does this sound familiar?

We know that there was a performance of an opera entitled The Cave of Trophonius in London in 1791 but, according to Jeremy Gray, most of the music was by Stephen Storace, whose sister Nancy was one of the leading singers of the time. So this performance at Bampton could well be the first ever UK performance of the Salieri version; given its vitality and melodic invention one wonders why we in Britain have had to wait so long to hear it.

The opera starts so promisingly. James Harrison as Aristone is everything a good father should be: he is delighted with the prospect of his twin daughters’ forthcoming marriages, approves of their fiancés and considers each couple is well suited. Ofelia is a blue-stocking and portrayed by the oh-so-serious Ukrainian mezzo Anna Starushkevych. Her lover Artemidoro is played by the bookish Christopher Turner who likes nothing better than to engage in philosophical discussion. At the other end of the spectrum is the fun-loving daughter Dori played with plenty of Irish spirit by Aolfe O’Sullivan. Her suitor Plistene, sung by Nicholas Merryweather, is a bit of a lad who bounds on to the stage and makes fun of his more serious contemporaries.

But just as they are about to ride off into the sunset to live happily ever after the young men encounter a magician in the woods who lives not in a cave as such,  but in a Tardis straight from an episode of Dr Who. Indeed, Matthew Stiff as Trofonio assumes the guise of the good doctor and demonstrates how by passing in through one door of the police box and out the other a person can be completely transformed.  Enter Artemidoro communing with nature who in his search of enlightenment enters the Tardis, at the magician’s behest, only to emerge through the other door as a 1960s-style hippy.  Meanwhile Plistene is strolling though the countryside in search not of knowledge, but of nymphs to play around with; he too accepts Trofonio’s invitation to enter the Tardis only to emerge as a studious chap in a tie and green cardigan who praises Plato. The total changes in character unnerve the girls who disown their lovers –  to the consternation of the hitherto unflappable Aristone.

More transformations occur in the final act when Tronfonio decides to find out if his magical powers apply to women. Ofelia emerges from the Tardis as a party-going girl in a lurid orange miniskirt to sing the catchy aria ‘La ra la lee’ (which Nancy Storace made famous in the late eighteenth century) and insists that ‘Life is for living, not hiding away’.  Dori turns into even more of a frump than her sister had been. Normality returns by the end of the opera, but lessons are certainly learned along the way.

I found Trofonio’s Cave a revelation, and not only because of the zany production  and the witty modern translation which fitted the music so perfectly.  The music is magnificent with not a duff aria, duet or trio during the whole evening. The quintets and sextets which constitute the finales seemed as good and imaginatively thought out as any in The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. Moreover all the singers have their place in the limelight, as it were, starting with Ofelia’s serene aria ‘The fire of Love’  and Aristone’s philosophical explanation of why his daughters are so different in character – ‘Let us consider the source of a river’. Plistene’s cavatina praising Plato ‘Teacher and leader, hear me ‘ gave the audience a chance to hear Nicholas Merryweather’s fine baritone voice. Matthew Stiff is an excellent Trofonio, especially when rejoicing in his magic powers in the cavatina ‘This enchanted habitation will be praised with acclamation’ – a slightly Gilbert and Sullivanesque touch here, perhaps?

There is real anxiety in Dori’s reaction to Plistine’s change of character ‘Having secured a lover, I’d not intended that madness so soon would have to end it’. Christopher Turner’s’ relief was palpable in Artemidoro’s aria ‘A dream … am I still dreaming’  as he is changed back into the scholar he used to be – though I have to admit I preferred his antics as a hippy complete with shades, which were a real hoot.  (Singer wishing to showcase their talents should note what a splendid opportunity Salieri offers four of the cast to play two very different characters.)  This is comic opera, but the people in it are not cardboard cut-outs;  all six singers made their roles eminently believable as they faced up to a succession of crises.

I have never attended an open air opera performance before and was rather concerned that the audience would not be able to hear the words especially in a breeze. However, the sound was not a problem thanks to a large hedge behind the stage and the Deanery building behind the audience which reflected the sound.  Also each of the singers projected their voices  and articulated the words well; the singing was uniformly excellent.  I sympathised with the plight of the conductor Paul Wingfield who had to conduct his orchestra in a tent with his back to the stage but there were no missed entries and the whole musical effect could not be faulted. Mr Wingield has learned his trade on the Jette Parker Young Artists scheme and on the strength of his endeavours at Bampton, Covent Garden should soon be calling on him to do them a few favours in their main house.

This is Bampton Classical Opera’s 23rd season and the instigators Jeremy Gray and Gilly French deserve our hearty congratulations for bringing neglected, but worthy, operas of the past to the attention of the public and making such a success of them. I only wish that other opera companies in the country would show a greater sense of adventure and give CarmenToscaDon Giovanni and La Traviata a rest for a few years. Having heard one Salieri opera, I’d like to hear some more.

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Roger Jones

 

joyful and melodious
Bachtrack, 20 July 2015

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joyful and melodious

Bachtrack, 20 July 2015

“We can’t do Aida here: it’s difficult to get the elephants,” Jeremy Gray apologises to his audience, explaining why Bampton Classical Opera’s 23rd summer production isn’t a familiar box-office classic, but is instead a rare small-scale work by Salieri. Not just rare: La grotta di Trofonio is one of nine Bampton adventures into opera’s forgotten archives which has probably resulted in a UK première (La grotta’s only other recorded London performance, in 1791, seems to have been a pasticcio, setting Casti’s libretto to music by a selection of other composers than Salieri). Sometimes, of course, obscurity is the kindest editor, but this brisk and vibrant comedy is a hidden masterpiece, combining the perils of courtship with the 18th century’s burgeoning taste for crackpot science.

Aristone has twin daughters, bookish Ofelia and fun-loving Dori. Each has found her ideal suitor: Ofelia shyly loves young philosopher Artemidoro, Dori is engaged to riotous Plistene. Aristone smiles on each match, and all seems perfect until the boys wander through the philosopher Trofonio’s cave in the woods – and emerge with their personalities swapped. The fiancées are distraught to find the philosopher dancing, the cad lost in dusty books: but soon it is the boys’ turn for disappointment, as they return to their former selves only to discover that Trofonio has now worked his magic on their girls... Cue much confusion, not least from an increasingly beleaguered Aristone, before a deeply satistfying quintet of reconciliation pronounces order, and love, is restored.

Reviving Salieri’s lost gem has become a personal passion for director and designer Jeremy Gray. His absolute commitment to the score, the work and this much-maligned composer shines out in Bampton’s engaging production, sung in exceptionally clear English by a talented cast. Casti’s original libretto has been deftly translated by Gilly French and Jeremy Gray, capturing much of the witty sensibility and rhythmic textures of 18th century Italian with its robustly patterned rhyme and piquant vocabulary. Staging is simple, but ambitious: we even have a revolve, and characters creatively use the garden in which we sit. Gray’s Edwardian setting, first a library, next a summer garden with bunting and lace tablecloths, recalls The Importance of Being Earnest, suiting Casti’s conflicting and quarrelsome love dynamics admirably, while Trofonio’s cave arrives in a brilliant modern incarnation which I won’t spoil for you: suffice it to say that you may be transported with delight. The Orchestra of Bampton Classical Opera, energetically conducted by Paul Wingfield, creates a luxurious sound, full of bright tension despite the evening breezes; even when a particularly bumptious zephyr decides to blow a section of scenery flat, professional execution stays serene.

James Harrison is a warm-voiced and well-acted Aristone, showing a father’s bewildered concern for his daughters (and their hopeful spouses) as all the young people in his life seem to go mad, and enjoying every note of Salieri’s flowing “River” aria as he describes his wildly different daughters. Aoife O’Sullivan is charming as Dori, more than a slight air of Elizabeth Bennet in her merry dark eyes and witty retorts, her singing fresh, clear and appealing throughout and her mournful soliloquy despairing at Plistene’s change truly beautiful. Anna Starushkevych is lovely as Plato obsessive Ofelia, drawing a demure, uptight personality with plenty of inner intensity to exploit in her later transformation. Starushkevych’s creamy soprano exhibits great control, with wonderfully soft transitions between notes; her sometimes accented English remains articulate. The gentle sisterly rivalry, and their warm bond with their father, comes across well from both sopranos.

Christopher Turner makes an adorable Artemidoro, giving “These shady woods” wonderful ornamentation as he conveys the intense, innocent joy of a philosopher in nature. Artemidoro’s early awkwardness with Ofelia contrasts dramatically with his transformed personality, vibrantly at ease with the world and the universe, to the horror of all his friends. Naturally comic, with excellent timing and unflappable stagecraft, Nicholas Merryweather is delightful and clear-voiced as both versions of Plistene, whether the loudly-tweed-suited party boy or the withdrawn, Albert-Herring-like conformist in cardigan and tie. Matthew Stiff makes the lovable rogue philosopher Trofonio constantly compelling with his rich, dexterous bass. Stiff balances seriousness with quirky humour, giving us a man truly outside time and space. 

In 1795, just a year before Mozart introduced Le nozze di Figaro to an unsuspecting (and, at first, unappreciative) world, Salieri produced La grotta di Trofonio for Emperor Joseph II and Vienna at large, receiving a rapturous international response: with 26 performances in its first run alone (Figaro received only nine!), within a decade Salieri’s romantic magical-buffo fairytale had been created in about 30 separate productions across Europe. Posterity may have reversed their positions, but Bampton Classical Opera’s joyful and melodious account of La grotta di Trofonio shows us Salieri can absolutely rival Mozart in wit, charm and creativity: and his music, brimming with hummable melodies, certainly sounds fabulous enough for any Emperor’s ear.

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Charlotte Valori

 

giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy
The Spectator, 25 July 2015

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giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy

The Spectator, 25 July 2015

Magical transformations are a commonplace of opera. We see our heroes turned into animals, trees, statues; witness wild beasts turned suddenly gentle and even the dead brought back to life, with scarcely a raised eyebrow. But opera’s greatest metamorphosis — and one still less remarked upon — is the annual British phenomenon of country house opera.

Auditoriums are conjured up in fields and gardens, ruins filled with light and life, and rural silence is exchanged for cosmopolitan croonings and tunings. With little more than a generator and a couple of portaloos, companies like Longborough, Bampton, Iford and Garsington serve up serious music season after season, taking risks the major metropolitan houses could never contemplate. It’s an artistic sleight of hand we’re much too apt to take for granted; too distracted, perhaps, by the black-tie trappings and social rigmarole that are its smoke and mirrors.

Specialising in neglected classical repertoire, Oxfordshire’s Bampton Opera is pretty much guaranteed to produce a show you won’t have seen before — think Paisiello and Philidor as well as lesser-known Haydn and Handel. Quality control is assured by the impeccable instincts of artistic directors Gilly French and Jeremy Gray, who have gained the trust of their audiences over more than 20 years of smart choices and even smarter stagings.

What’s unusual about Bampton, though, is the friction it maintains between its growing ambition (this year’s production will tour both to Westonbirt and London) and its total lack of pretension. The orchestra mixes professionals with performing friends of Bampton who have been with the company since its start in 1993, while evening dress is shunned in favour of whatever’s warmest and most comfortable. The results are giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy. 

Don’t believe everything you hear in Amadeus; there’s a great deal more to Salieri than a jealous rival to Mozart, as Bampton’s La grotta di Trofonio (Trofonio’s Cave) makes clear. A simple conceit sees two very different sisters and their equally contrasting lovers exchange personalities in the wizard Trofonio’s magic cave. Romantic chaos and comedy ensue before a second visit sets all to rights. If Salieri’s score lacks the intricate finales of Mozart’s later Da Ponte operas, it pulls ahead in the fluidity of its drama, drifting between arias and ensembles (duets and trios a particular highlight) with easy informality. Orchestral colours are painted with care, and melodies tug at the ear — just listen to Dori’s exquisite ‘Un bocconcin d’amante’.

Jeremy Gray’s production starts out as just a pretty period piece — all Gibson Girl frocks and coy glances — but grows into something altogether more anachronistic and anarchic. Gray and French’s English libretto tempers irreverence with real affection, pitching this gossamer comedy just right for a contemporary audience, and giving their young cast plenty to work with.

It’s hard to take your eyes off Nicholas Merryweather’s blissfully funny Plistene (beautiful singing a bonus), but Aoife O’Sullivan’s Dori always make it worthwhile, sparring vigorously with Anna Starushkevych’s vocally slightly uneven Ofelia. Tenor Christopher Turner does double duty as earnest romantic lead and outlandish comedy turn, supported by the impish Matthew Stiff as Trofonio himself. Doing the impossible and holding it all together stylishly despite outdoor issues of acoustics and sightlines, conductor Paul Wingfield gives loving attention to Salieri’s orchestral details, shaping a performance that, on opening night, survived set collapses, gusty winds and snapped strings with barely a musical scratch.

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Alexandra Coghlan

 

...visual wit and musical accomplishment
Opera, September 2015

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...visual wit and musical accomplishment

Opera, September 2015

Aristone’s two daughters – the bookish Ofelia and the boisterous Dori – are due to wed, respectively, the pensive Artimidoro and the playful Plistene.  But the meddling of a mysterious master-of-ceremonies in a magical woodland cave switches the dispositions of first the men, then the women.  The question is whether, despite their personality changes, the partners will remain true to their first loves.

Sounds familiar?  But this is not Così fan tutte, or A Midsummer Night’s Dream; rather Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio, first staged at Vienna’s Burgtheater in 1785 (shortly before Le nozze di Figaro was first performed there), with a libretto by Giambattista Casti.

This, the first UK staging in modern times, was robust and inventive: a ‘Downton meets the Doctor’ scenario (fitting, as Bampton doubles as the village of Downton for the television series) which balanced visual wit and musical accomplishment.  We began in a post-Edwardian library – think Classical columns, philosophical tomes, bodices and boaters – but as if to warn us that all was not as it seemed, a false bookshelf concealed Aristone’s gin store.

The director-designer Jeremy Gray had decided that transformation would be accompanied by time travel, and the bookcase swiveled to reveal a blue 1960s police box from which materialized a Tom Baker lookalike (long woolen scarf, scruffy blue frockcoat and a fondness for jelly babies), a slightly down-at-heel Edwardian gentleman turned eccentric apothecary of the emotions.  Hence, subject to Trofonio’s machinations, Artemidoro emerged from the Tardis sporting a hippie headband and flares, flamboyantly strumming air-guitar; and a flash of Ofelia’s knee-high white boots preceded her metamorphosis from demure maiden to 1960s wild-child in thigh-high A-line shift dress (costumes by Vikki Medhurst).

Outlandishness was tempered with sincerity.  Arias of exquisite melodic refinement offered genuine sentiment while the wealth of duets and ensembles injected dramatic pace and variety.  Nicholas Merryweather was a strong presence as the am-dram-loving Plistene, using the text well (a droll translation by Gilly French); later, swapping his dashing boater for buttoned-up knitwear, hais baritone was refreshingly clean-sounding.  Christopher Turner had no difficulty with the challenges of Artemidoro’s tenor arias: the evenness of tone and colour was impressive in his early philosophical reflections and even when he was transformed by bandana and beads his vocal line remained seamless.

Aoife O’Sullivan had fun as the convivial Dori and relished her makeover as a fusty frump; her soprano melded winningly with Anna Starushkevych’s Ofelia in the opening trio and she was technically assured throughout, firmly in control of vocal nuance and expression.  Starushkevych’s mezzo is growing in richness, depth and allure.  Particularly impressive was her act 2 duet with Artemidoro: her Ofelia was now a high-spirited extrovert with a penchant for cigarettes and rock-and-roll, and she mastered the phrasing of both her long melodies and her frequent short interjections – with Ofelia’s new-found loquaciousness, she dominated the dull Artemidoro.  Her stage movements were confident and alert.  Triona Adams (assistant director) put in a witty turn as a non-singing, put-upon maid who in the closing moments accepted Trofonio’s invitation into the time machine.

As the debonair Aristone, the baritone James Harrison demonstrated an excellent eye for comic detail.  The bass Matthew Stiff did not quite have the vocal weight to convey Trofonio’s menacing authority but his diction in the recitative was crisp and his tone seductively lyrical.

The conductor Paul Wingfield showed good judgement in supporting the singers and allowed for moments of reflection within the prevailing comic confusion.  The Orchestra of Bampton Classical Opera found vivid colours: the lovely aria-accompaniments for woodwind carried beautifully, and at the keyboard Marek Ruszczynski accompanied the secco recitative with a welcome succinctness.  Bampton’s habit of delving into the 18th-century operatic grotto invariably unearths treasures that are both magical and memorable.  This was one of their best.

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Claire Seymour

 

...lively, inventive... a joy from start to finish
The Oxford Times, 27 August 2015

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...lively, inventive... a joy from start to finish

The Oxford Times, 27 August 2015

Bampton founders Jeremy Gray and Gilly French are experts at dusting off forgotten operatic treasures and giving them a new lease of life, and this year’s offering, Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio (Trofonio’s Cave), is probably one of their most glittering jewels yet.
 
This light-hearted, fast-paced comedy is a joy from start to finish, wrapped up in a richly melodic and vibrant score that is simply too good to be allowed to sink back into obscurity.
 
This is believed to be the first UK production and it is hard to imagine a more sparkling debut than this, with its witty new translation – a joint effort by Gray and French – underpinned by Gray’s lively, inventive direction, which includes an unexpected and hilarious modern twist.
 
Sisters Ofelia and Dori are engaged to Artemidoro and Plistene, to the approval of their father, Aristone. Ofelia and Artemidoro are sensible and studious, while Dori and Plistene are lively and playful. Confusion reigns when the two men venture into philosopher Trofonio’s woodland cave and emerge with opposite personalities.
 
Later, with their personalities restored, the same thing happens to the girls.
 
Among one of Bampton’s strongest-ever casts, I particularly liked the gloriously rich tenor voice of Christopher Turner (Artemidoro). Nicholas Merryweather never disappoints, and his natural comedic skills and vocal warmth as Plistene were another delight.
 
Aoife O’Sullivan and Anna Starushkevych were charming as Dori and Ofelia and the orchestra played with its customary sparkle under the firm, committed direction of Paul Wingfield
 
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Nicola Lisle

 

...the most polished of Bampton casts that I've witnessed, with a hoot of a production to match
Opera Now, September 2015

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...the most polished of Bampton casts that I've witnessed, with a hoot of a production to match

Opera Now, September 2015

Based in a lovely Oxfordshire garden and travelling out to various rural outposts during the summer, Bampton Classical Opera is famed for taking risks, offering repertoire you would otherwise probably never see.  This summer, Bampton's founders and artistic directors, husband-and-wife team Jeremy Gray and Gilly French, served up a real winner: Salieri's La grotta di Trofonio.  The opera was a huge triumph for Salieri and with its comic pertness, its role-swapping and fabulous ensembles, it patently influenced Mozart's Così fan tutte.

The bizarre story of La grotta di Trofonio suited Bampton's well-known stage humour perfectly, and for once baritone Nicholas Merryweather was cast as the romantic lead (Plistene) rather than the comic buffoon.  In the title role, it was Matthew Stiff that presided over a typically bizarre magic cave (a Dr Who-style Tardis), and inhabited the role infinitely better than the Trofonius I saw in Lausanne a decade ago.  In the 1785 premiere, Salieri's wizard was the baritone Francesco Bennuci, Mozart's Figaro, Leporello and Guglielmo.

The spectacular winner of Bampton's 2014 Young Singers' Competition, Ukranian soprano Anna Starushkevych, was matched for comic skills by Irish soprano Aoife O'Sullivan, a glorious Bampton regular.  Both produced singing as well as acting to die for, oozing character and especially delicious when paired.  Artemidoro, Plistene's chum, was appealing sung by young tenor Christopher Turner.

This was undoubtedly one of the tightest and overall the most polished of Bampton's casts that I've witnessed, with a hoot of a production to match.

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Roderic Dunnett

 

...shone from the very outset...
Music and Vision, 28 August 2015

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...shone from the very outset...

Music and Vision, 28 August 2015

The audience that gathers each mid-July in the Deanery garden at Bampton, an agreeable village nestling in the west of Oxfordshire, comes to opera to enjoy itself. Rarely, if ever, are they disappointed.
 
For Bampton Classical Opera, which performs beneath the towering late thirteenth century spire of St Mary's Church, before proceeding to the grounds of Westonbirt School, Gloucestershire (31 August 2015, 5pm) and St John's, Smith Square, Westminster in the autumn (15 September, 7pm), is one of those companies you can totally rely on: for vocal excellence, supported by a well-directed classical ensemble; for a teasing, entertaining production by Jeremy Gray, backed up by a translation (mainly by his fellow Artistic Director, Gilly French) that often enough has you in stitches while being totally true to the composer's original; for audibility (a box hedge makes the highly effective backdrop at Bampton); and for brilliantly researched repertoire.
 
This last is — apart from the overall quality year on year — Bampton's speciality. These often hilarious translations are always of some unusual opera or composer from the Classical period you have scarcely, if ever, heard of. Where else would you meet Bertoni, Benda, Gazzaniga, Grétry, Martin y Soler, Paer, Philidor? Who else would serve up Storace's The Comedy of Errors (by the brother of Mozart's Susanna), Cimarosa's The Italian Girl in London (as opposed to Algiers), or Gluck operas that no-one usually touches?
 
A proportion are undoubtedly UK stage premieres, like The Philosopher's Stone, the remarkably similar predecessor of The Magic Flute devised by Emanuel Schikaneder with three of the Flute's cast members furnishing arias: just one of a series of popular comic shenanigans Schikaneder cooked up for his devoted out of town Vienna audience in the 1780s and 1790s — virtually a genre in themselves.
 
And then there is Salieri. Several seasons ago Bampton mounted a scintillating full staging of Falstaff, around the very time when Brigitte Fassbaender (then Intendant) was semi-staging it at Innsbruck. Both presentations proved Salieri's version of Falstaff to be as accomplished a stagework as Verdi's — an astonishing discovery. As to a prodigious talent, one has to remember that Salieri went on to tutor Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt (not to mention Süssmayr, Hummel, Weigl, Reicha and the young Marianna Auenbrugger).
 
Now, on the principle that Number 11 buses inevitably arrive in pairs, both Bampton and an inventive neighbouring company, New Chamber Opera (see below) who also mounted Salieri's Falstaff, have given the composer a fresh airing. Easily the better opera, it must be said, was Bampton's La Grotta di Trofonio ('The Cave of Trofonius'), first staged in 1785, that is a year before Mozart's Figaro, and greeted with greater acclaim. Trofonio has a special claim to fame: its plot and several passages in the music clearly influenced Mozart and da Ponte, above all in Così fan tutte, staged a little over four years later.
 
Cirrus clouds wafted on high — evidence of a fine evening; and the audience was subjected to only one brief visitation from the nearby Fairford Air Show. Quickly one discovered one of the splendid characteristics of Bampton: the care taken over costumes, by Cécile van Dijk and Melissa Burton; invariably they are colourful and attractive; but more important, pertinent to the character, whether historic or modern dress is capitalised on.
 
The set, designed by Gray and here fashioned by Anthony Hall and Trevor Darke, usually has the same impact: the point of the opera is that Trofonius (the name borrowed from a celebrated ancient shrine in Lebedeia, in ancient Boeotia), presides over a magic cave, entering which has the capacity to transform visitors into something different — in this case, to assume the characteristics of their opposite. So the shy ones become vivacious, the boisterous ones recessive, with obvious comic effects. Invariably around Bampton's outdoor stage there turn up Ionic or Doric columns, or bookcases looking suitably august, or strange boats (Haydn's Le pescatrici) and colourful contraptions that have a tongue-in-cheek comic look.
 
Here, the centrepiece was a 1950s/1960s navy blue police box, notably akin to that used by different generations of the BBC TV series Dr Who, a detail underlined by the fact that Trofonio (Matthew Stiff) appears not with a magic staff or wand, but clad in a Dr Who-type scarf.
 
This high-quality production shone from the very outset: the moves during the overture were apt and amusing, not gratuitous or distracting. The girls' duet — the impish Dori, a sparkling-eyed performance from Bampton regular Aoife O'Sullivan (who has enlivened Mozart, Gluck, Bertoni and Grétry) and the bookish Ofelia — Anna Starushkevych, winner of the first Bampton Young Singers' Competition, and of the 2012 London Handel Singing Competition — due not least to Salieri's close pairing and beautiful interweaving of the voices, sounded already like what Mozart turns out in Così. The closeness of the two operas — not least as the two pairs of lovers, by stages, change character, just as in Mozart the 'soldiers' woo each other's inamorata — is noticeable throughout Trofonio. When the father, Aristone (the affable James Harrison) joins in, it is as if we encounter Fiordiligi, Dorabella and Don Alfonso three or four years before their time.
 
Salieri employs orchestration and obbligati that feel wholly on a par with his Mozartian rival: usually we think of such exquisite arias as something that picks Mozart out from all his contemporaries: his sole perquisite. To judge by this, surely wrongly. The creativity of Salieri shines through from the outset. For Ofelia's first aria, two clarinets and a bassoon add exquisite woodwind colouring; the quality of Starushkevych's English pronunciation is fascinatingly idiomatic; but enunciation is one of the many consistent high quality aspects of Bampton productions.
 
Conductor Paul Wingfield (a recent Royal Opera Jette Parker Young Artist) underlined the Mozart comparison with some superbly chosen pacings, not least Ofelia's ensuing aria, 'The fire of love and ardour ...' to which he brought not just an andante but perhaps even adagio feel, which enabled Starushkevych to exude real pathos, a glorious sequence, and followed by a memorable quartet for the four lovers, offsetting the philosophical pair (Artemidoro and Ofelia) with the almost crazily frenetic other duo (the amusingly animated Plistine and Dori) in a lively quartet.
 
Aristone, the girls' perplexed father, has a delicious aria in turn: the libretto by Giambattista Casti (1724-1803, Da Ponte's chief rival, his senior by fifteen years, and the author of three more libretti for Salieri from 1786-1792, of which one was Prima la musica), is charming, intriguing and never sags or lets up, particularly in Gilly French and Jeremy Gray's translation: someone should make a collection of these treasures, for over twenty-three years the pair's verbal gift for turning often complex Italian patter into approachable and highly amusing English verse is unmatched anywhere.
 
Furthermore, each character tends to have a basketful of teasing individual gestures, which together with Gray's deft moves and occasional blocks — maybe a few more of the latter would add to the fun — keep things visually entertaining. The master of sly, understated gesture is Nicholas Merryweather, who need only walk onto a stage and tender the slightest facial flicker, gesture or smirk, to dissolve one in helpless laughter; but he is close-run by Irish soprano O'Sullivan, an actress whose Irish mischievousness kept one endlessly entertained, and who can manage the playful and poignant, delighted and disappointed, exuberant and despondent, equally cleverly.
 
Bampton's tradition of performing operas in English does a tremendous service. Their translated versions make these rare works especially accessible to and enjoyable by all their regular audiences at the Bampton Deanery, and Westonbirt; and also, doubtless, the multifaceted audience for the autumn stagings at St John's, Smith Square. The translations take time and are an undoubted labour of love; but their skill at making their visitors utterly at home with rare or unusual composers like Paisiello or Portugal — and keep them marvellously entertained in unfamiliar territory — cannot be exaggerated. Bampton's meticulous English translations are a key part of its deserved, long-running success. And one of the reasons why Bampton's supporters, and indeed patrons, remain so loyal.
 
The Mozart parallel returns with Artemidoro's aria ('These shady woods'), a delight to sing and enchanting to hear. Tenor Christopher Turner brought such a lyrical touch to the gentler young lover, while Wingfield's especially polished players from Bampton's own Classical Orchestra (the chamber ensemble Chroma take over for the London performance) so caught the mood with flute and oboe birdcalls, that they seemed gorgeously to anticipate Tamino. (The programme draws a useful analogy with not just Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, but Gluck's evocation of the Elysian Fields in Orfeo ed Eurydice. One has to remember that Gluck, along with the teacher Leopold Gassman, was one of the major, if not most important influences on Salieri's own stageworks.) Skedaddling woodwind was another of the treats here, and the quality of Turner's high tessitura surprised and delighted.
 
When the serious Artemidoro emerged from Trofonio's netherworld (or police call box) — and transformed, immediately let his hair down, to accompanying psychedelic light effects — the impact was hilarious: the launch of many farcical touches that Salieri — as gifted at comic opera (compare Falstaff) as he is at florid-aria historical pieces among his forty-plus operas tragédies-lyriques, such as Armida, the superb Les Danaides (just a year before Trofonio), Tarare, or L'Europa riconosciuta, which opened both the original La Scala, Milan in 1778 and the recently renovated one in 2004 — deploys, so as to keep us joyously chuckling. (Falstaff came fourteen years later, at the tail end of the eighteenth century — 1799 — but confirm the gift for the bizarre is already there in 1785.)
 
Meanwhile Merryweather's Plistene (Greek: Pleisthenes) has only to stand there with pipe and green cardigan and with a twitch of an eyelid or puzzled look bring the house down. His aria, 'In the woods they say are hiding nymphs incessantly providing playful laughter and distraction', with (I think) two cor anglais (maybe cor anglais and oboe) and bassoon, was beautifully expressive. He has the vocal range, and advanced acting skills, it seems, to take on any kind of figure and give it character.
 
There is a third aria, or arietta, for the transformed Artemidoro, now enraptured and equally appealing, and yet another where the baritone Plistene, conjured into an unlikely serene personality, sings in praise of Plato ('Teacher and leader'). Merryweather's voice is magnificently supported and beautifully sustained, the tone rich and appealing; he is utterly in command of his instrument, as every operatic appearance to date has demonstrated: an endlessly engaging delivery and an exciting dramatic presence. Both the male duo shone in getting across to the audience the scrumptious quality of this rare yet almost familar-sounding score.
 
One reason it's possible to pick out these individual solos and ensembles is because Bampton's programme notes are of such a high quality. Each year their splendidly designed programme book, for which they have devised an attractive landscape format, is likewise a treasure-trove of intelligent material from start to finish.
 
Clearly printed and providing a detailed, valuable exposé of the various happenings, their notes are exemplary. Although other companies focus on accompanying essays, Bampton's Resumé and Synopsis in detail together give one just what one needs to navigate through knotty and unfamilar opera stories (and Jeremy Gray also furnishes a desirable, instructive, thoroughly-researched historical essay here) and almost a cascade of arias, accompanied recitatives and ensembles. Last year, with two composers to evaluate, Bampton drew on two academics to unravel the rivalry between Gluck (Il Parnaso confuso) and Ferdinando Bertoni (Orfeo). But the synopsis this time, well up to Kobbé standard, but somehow more comfortable, proved a generous asset to have at one's disposal: the formula is an excellent one.
 
As the Act I finale unfolds, the distress of the two girls at finding their boyfriends now metamorphosed induces more and more hilarity and confusion. The exhaustion of the father, Aristone, at finding the prospective matches both unravelling helps build towards a hapless completion. The wit and comic rhyme of the translation ('switching ... twitching', or earlier, 'reputation ... flirtation ... situation' and later 'volition ... permission', 'collision ... precision', 'magus ... outrageous', and more indulgently, 'Trofonio ... alone-i-o') serves Salieri's purpose perfectly: its slickness, pertness and appositeness ensure the listeners are given a continuous treat. All thoughts of Salieri as a stuffy, jealous rival are dissipated. He has no need for jealousy or rancour: his talents are well up to the mark.
 
Aristone's advice to his distraught daughters to be patient again calls to mind the sane advice of Don Alfonso in Così. One of the striking things about both acts as this opera unfolds is the way scenes fold into one another, smoothly and logically — a classic instance where Casti's libretto and Salieri's musical planning mesh perfectly. What's more, each character is given arias (here, Dori, despondently with flute and bassoon) or ensembles so that no-one is left without — and the story is advanced each time.
 
The boys' duet that follows, 'Would you go barging in?' was one of the star turns of the whole evening in the Bampton garden; partly because of the notable quality of the singing, but largely because of Salieri's gifts in the composing; just as Plistene's relief at emerging restored to his former persona produces a surprisingly thoughtful accompanied recitative, and Artemidoro, likewise returned to his bookish, reflective self, is utterly enchanting — a slow aria ('A dream ... am I still dreaming?') proving well up to Mozart standards.
 
Gray's exploration of the background points out (and this is the sort of full detail Bampton's notes are so first rate at supplying) that the tenor Vincenzo Calvesi, who had leading roles in operas by Martin y Soler and Storace as well as Salieri around this time, was given a startlingly similar aria (Un'aura amorosa) as Ferrando near the end of Act I in the premiere of Così fan tutte in January 1790.
 
The contrasting aria Salieri added for Trofonio ('This enchanted habitation') perhaps has something of Sarastro about it. Wise though he be, however, he is not averse to entrapping the girls in their turn, engaging them in another gorgeous, lilting trio, again highly suggestive of Così ('So enter, lovely lady, my grotto is cool and shady'). The translation excels both here and in a further trio for the men, a scampering sequence as they desperately search for the girls (who have, of course, entered Trofonio's cave).
 
As they emerge from the telephone box, Dori sombrely, Ofelia trippingly with her soon to be popular aria 'La ra la lee' — a Viennese hit — the real comedy comes when they engage in a beautifully judged duet, where the offsetting of their characters nearly produces a fight.
 
Salieri's Act 2 finale compares with that of Figaro — the very next year — not just in length (upwards of ten minutes), but in the marvellous way it is built up. It is also, it is worth mentioning, akin to the two finales in Stephen Storace's Gli equivoci ('The Comedy of Errors'), of which Bampton presented an exceptional production (in this case, in Arthur Jacobs' translation) in 2000/2001: the production, incidentally, that more or less launched the teenage Merryweather's already glowing career. (Cologne and Guildhall trained, he is also a regular at Longborough Festival Opera.)
 
No wish to detract from a thoroughly good event (and romp), but one item I occasionally ponder is the make-up. Just sometimes — not necessarily on this occasion, capably overseen by Gaynor Cooper — one feels a slightly bolder use might be made of facial definition or colour, so as either to catch the rather good outdoor lighting spots later on, or to compensate for the natural light (often, sunny) which holds good for most July evenings.
 
Needless to say, all turns out happily. The perplexed Aristone, on applying to Trofonio, learns the character-transforming secret of his cave. Their exchange is a fine piece of comic hoo-ha. Salieri generates added atmosphere with the use of ghostly tympani, and here economical mixed colour lighting made a good impact. The Mozart analogy is underlined by Aristone's all-male trio with the two lads — perhaps as close to Così as any part of Salieri's opera; the girls are given arias in both their altered character and, once they have revisited the grotto, their restored selves. The latter forms part of the charmingly built finale, at the heart of which is a hymnic sextet, exquisitely well balanced, the third section of which is quite superb.
 
As they all scamper away to be wed, the question arises — has Trofonio held up a mirror to the characters of each, and shown then how limited they are unless they realise their full potential? Are his transformations not unlike the disguises in Così fan tutte, which enable by the very deception the hidden deeper thoughts of Fiordiligi and Dorabella to be prised out?
 
This opera 'di stile magico-buffo' is undoubtedly one of Bampton Classical Opera's most revealing and splendidly carried off productions. La Grotta di Trofonio was one of its special successes. High-quality productions are Bampton's forte; but in this, they excelled themselves.
 
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Roderic Dunnett

 

fresh and vigorous throughout...
The Daily Telegraph, 16 September 2015

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fresh and vigorous throughout...

The Daily Telegraph, 16 September 2015

This delightful evening incidentally offered a salutary reminder that Mozart didn’t have quite the originality that is ordinarily attributed to him: other composers in Vienna were also ploughing his furrow, albeit without the force of his genius.

La Grotta di Trofonio is a comic opera by Antonio Salieri – a name blackened by legend and Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, falsely representing him as Mozart’s envious nemesis. The evidence actually suggests that their relations were largely cordial, and governed by professional emulation rather than personal jealousy.

And in this case, it is Mozart who seems to have learnt from Salieri: first performed in 1785, the latter’s La Grotta di Trofonio, ‘Trofonio’s Cave’, was a big hit of a sort that Mozart always craved, and although its influence on Così fan tutte (1789) may be undocumented, it is palpable to the point of plagiarism.

The story is silly. Two sisters, one fun-loving and one bluestocking serious, are happily matched to two youths of similarly contrasting temperaments. But when the latter visit a magic cave inhabited by a wizard, they undergo personality transformations which leaves the young ladies aghast.

The farce develops without depth or complexity, but as well as pre-figuring Così’s plot, it heralds some of its musical elements too – notably its long and vivacious finales, a trio in the manner of ‘Soave sia il vento’ and a tenor aria which sounds strikingly like ‘Un’ aura amorosa’.  

The pace is swift and the mood playful, enlivened by instrumentation rich in woodwind. Salieri may lack Mozart’s mastery of harmony or his ability to enrich emotion and pull at the heartstrings, but he shares his language and adherence to conventions. The result is charming. 

Bampton Classical Opera brought their open-air summer production of this piece (never previously performed in Britain) to St John’s Smith Square and gave an enthusiastic audience much pleasure. Wittily translated into English, it was given a light-touch staging by Jeremy Gray that pitched camp somewhere between Jane Austen and P G Wodehouse territory, with the magic cave represented as Dr Who’s Tardis phone box.  

Paul Wingfield conducted the chamber orchestra Chroma with panache, and a young cast was fresh and vigorous throughout, even though one of its members, Anna Starushkevych had fallen foul of visa problems in the Ukraine and been replaced at very short notice by an off-stage singer Catherine Backhouse and on-stage actor Marieke Bernard-Berkel – both of them excellent.

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Rupert Christiansen

 

They have done Salieri proud...
The Arts Desk, September 2015

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They have done Salieri proud...

The Arts Desk, September 2015

Antonio Salieri. Mozart’s nemesis – wrong. Beethoven’s teacher – right. Unjustly neglected in his own right – maybe. Bampton Opera have put some flesh on the bones of his reputation with an English-language production of La grotto di Trifonio, first performed in Vienna, October 1785. They have done Salieri proud: we can see for ourselves why he is who he is.

He wrote a later operatic entertainment whose title encapsulates the tension at the heart of opera: First the music, and then the words. So, first the music. It’s heady stuff. Richly chromatic, sumptuously orchestrated, easing in and out of dissonance with the same mastery of craft that he uses to blend horns and bassoons on the composer’s palette, or accompany a lovely tenor aria with a bass running gently beneath tweets and trills from soft flutes that later turn up in the slow movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Paul Wingfield’s direction of the Chroma Ensemble was fleet and well-pointed, keeping the trumpets down and giving free rein to some fine continuo playing from Marek Ruszczynski.

Then the words. The plot is a calculated comedy of confused identities, stuffed with popular tropes and archetypes to hit the operatic jackpot of the day. Two sisters, one serious, one frivolous? Check. Both in couples, split by misunderstanding? Check. A magus-figure of outlandish power and uncertain motives? Check. Around this time a "Let’s make an opera" handbook was written in which Gottlieb Stephanie, librettist to Mozart for Die Entführung aus dem Serail, passed on his wisdom to aspiring librettists and composers. Though Salieri and his librettist Giambattista Casti were too experienced to need Stephanie’s help, it’s as if they studied every word and then wrote Trifonio’s Cave, with arias, duets and ensembles all present and correct. More to the point, it seems impossible that Mozart and da Ponte didn’t sit in the Burgtheater in 1785 to watch, listen and learn. Così fan tutte was first staged there five years later.

The translation is the work of the Bampton Opera’s artistic directors, Gilly French and Jeremy Gray, made with the experience of staging the UK premiere of Salieri’s Falstaff in 2003, and many other classical-era rarities since then. It’s as quick and witty as Jeremy Sams’ work for ENO, and no less susceptible to the kind of cognitive dissonance that arises from an 18th-century plot, updated in Gray’s own staging to a Coward-era setting of tea-dresses and tweed, in which a character can exclaim “Alas and alack” one moment, followed hard by “He’s just a charlatan, a nutcase”, like the waterbottle on the mantelpiece in Downton. At least, thanks to superb diction from all the singers, every word came through, and without the aid of surtitles.

That character is Aristone, the sisters’ father, and James Harrison made the best of his blustery aria to open the second act. The Fiordiligi-prototype is Ofelia, sung earlier in the summer by Anna Starushkevych, but visa problems prevented her from rejoining the company for this performance at St John’s Smith Square; she was bravely replaced onstage by the assistant stage manager, Marieke Bernard-Berkel, and the part fearlessly sung from the wings by Catherine Backhouse.

Ofelia’s sister is Dori (da Ponte could have tried harder there), who may not have Ofelia’s vocal pyrotechnics but Aoife O’Sullivan stole the show nonetheless, with good comic timing and a warmly poised lyric soprano. Before venturing into his cave (cue more smutty translation), they were joined by Trofonio (Matthew Stiff) for the score’s “Soave s’il vento” moment: the part has Commendatore-like D minor pronouncement, and Matthew Stiff had the required gravity in every sense. As Ofelia’s fiancé Artemidoro, Christopher Turner made a convincing transformation from heroic oaf back to ardent philosopher, trading smart banter with his fellow-suitor Nicholas Merryweather.

The evening flew by but, if anything, the familiarity it afforded with the material and context of da Ponte and Mozart’s partnership only increased my appreciation of their originality. Salieri’s vocal lines can be pretty adventurous, but they are pretty all-the-same. Where he was content with sweet harmony in the pit and confusion on stage, Mozart/da Ponte fused the two. Trofonio’s Cave is six characters in search of a drama; Così is where they find it.

 

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Peter Quantrill

 

supremely entertaining...
Seen and Heard International, 16 September 2015

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supremely entertaining...

Seen and Heard International, 16 September 2015

This rare outing of Salieri’s 1785 opera – probably the first time it has been heard in the UK as the composer himself would recognise it – raised so many questions that cannot be answered adequately by me. The most important of these – on this evidence – is why is Mozart so revered whilst Salieri is mostly forgotten and remembered only as the younger composer’s nemesis as depicted in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus play (and subsequent film version) which was based on historical fact … up to a point. That point was whether Salieri, court composer in the Vienna of Mozart’s day, internationally renowned, a prominent teacher and someone universally respected had poisoned him to eliminate the competition.
 
As my esteemed colleague Roger Jones wrote in his review (of an earlier performance at Bampton) Salieri’s work ‘pre-dates Figaro, Così, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute, and one can’t help feeling that the younger composer must have drawn inspiration from Salieri’s story line and music. In his opera characters embark on a journey involving transformations which ultimately lead them to a better understanding of themselves. Does this sound familiar?’ Indeed it does and I couldn’t put it better myself and won’t try!
 
In a brief introduction in the programme the plot is outlined beginning with how ‘Aristone is sympathetic to the marriage plans of two very different daughters. The studious Ofelia will marry the philosophy-loving Artemidoro, whilst the vivacious Dori has chosen lively Plistene: all will be content.’ As we are very familiar from similar tales a lot can – and will happen – before there is a happy ending. Throw into this plot ‘the mysterious cave of the magician Trofonio’, some ‘transformed personalities’ and an undercurrent of some striving for enlightenment … and much fun will be had by all. Significantly in the programme this was headed Resumé – or ‘Into the woods’ and began with a quote from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – clearly a major influence on Giambattista Casti’s libretto. For those who love that play like I do Trofonio is Oberon, Aristone is Egeus, and Dori/Ofelia/Artemidoro/Plistene are revisions of Helena/Hermia/Lysander and Demetrius.
 
My wife and I are devotees of BBC Four’s foreign drama series often a Saturday night staple for us. By now we have got so used to all those subtitles that as we read them it is almost as if the actors are speaking in English rather than their own language. It was something like this for this supremely entertaining performance at St John’s Smith Square as the original Ofelia, Anna Starushkevych, was stuck in the Ukraine unable to get permission to sing in the UK and her role was split between mezzo-soprano, Catherine Backhouse, singing from the platform, and the role acted by Marieke Bernard-Berkel, assistant stage manager for this production. It was a little distracting initially but – as with the subtitles – I soon began to imagine it was Ms Bernard-Berkel singing and I could immerse myself in all the high jinks of Jeremy Gray’s simple but extremely amusing staging.
 
Jeremy Gray was the founder – with Gilly French – of Bampton Classical Opera in 1993 and this is their 23rd season. It is a great pity I have – to my shame – never heard about them and I must have missed so many similarly interesting rarities in all those years. If they have ever done anything as wonderful as this Trofonio’s Cave then I wish I had been there. Salieri seems to have been an expert craftsman capable of writing music that not only appealed to the tastes of his day but – unlike that of some other eighteenth-century composers – appears to have something to say to us today. It was all aided and abetted by a very witty – contemporary and singer-friendly – translation from Gilly French and Jeremy Gray, and the sensitive support and accomplished musicianship of CHROMA under their conductor, Paul Wingfield, who conducted with suppleness and with obvious affection for the score. With the ensemble performing behind the singers the tricky balancing act between them and the orchestra was not always perfect. Because of this – and St John’s troublesome acoustics – the soloists were occasionally swamped and some of the words lost, but it never spoilt my enjoyment of what I was watching.
 
Vikki Medhurst’s costume designs initially brought a little bit of Downton Abbey to the proceedings but the ‘serious’ Dori soon ‘transforms’ and wears a brightly patterned mini shift dress from the early 1970s and the straight-laced Artemidoro turns into a semi-hippie rock god! The real coup de théâtre for me was having Trofonio’s cave represented by the Tardis and the magician himself appearing as Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor complete with scarf and packets of jelly babies! Yes you’ve guessed it – if I am not reporting for Seen and Heard or watching Nordic Noir on BBC Four I can be found watching Dr Who religiously and have done for over 50 years! There are lots of lively arias, duets, trios, and quartets for the singers and there is also a chorus of unseen spirits. The cast Bampton Classical Opera assembled were never less than fully committed and highly accomplished and we clearly understood a sisters’ rivalry, their love for a caring father and all the zany mishaps along the way to true love. I don’t want to particularly single anyone out as they were all so integral to the success of this exhumation of a too-long forgotten operatic gem. If special mention has to be made it would be for Catherine Backhouse stepping in at the last-minute as an intense and vibrant sounding Ofelia and Matthew Stiff as the mysterious, mercurial and roguish Trofonio (Tom Baker would be proud) which was warmly and commandingly sung.
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Jim Pritchard

 

a production which did the work justice in such an engaging manner
Planet Hugill, 18 September 2015

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a production which did the work justice in such an engaging manner

Planet Hugill, 18 September 2015

Bampton Classical Opera, artistic director Gilly French and Jeremy Gray, has something of a reputation for shedding light on forgotten corners of 18th century operatic repertoire, and their latest production is certainly quite a find. The first UK production in modern times of Salieri's La grotta di Trofonio (Trofonio's Cave) which premiered in Vienna in 1785. Jeremy Gray's production, conducted by Paul Wingfield, debuted at Bampton in July, and came to St John's Smith Square for one performance on 15 September 2015. The cast included James Harrison, Aoife O'Sullivan, Christopher Turner, Nicholas Merryweather and Matthew Stiff. Anna Starushkevych was also supposed to be performing but she was marooned in the Ukraine having trouble renewing her UK visa, so Catherine Backhouse sang whilst Marieke Bernard-Berkel acted. The ensemble Chroma provided the orchestral accompaniment.
 
If we think of Salieri's music at all (and it is difficult to get away from his extra-musical reputation) it is probably as a teacher (Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt were amongst his pupils), or as the writer of large scale opera seria. Trofonio's Cave is rather different, and it helps to shed some illuminating background to Mozart's trilogy of operas with Lorenzo da Ponte (Le nozze di Figaro premiered in 1786 and a number of the cast in Trofonio would go on to perform in Mozart's operas).
 
Saleri had collaborated with Lorenzo da Ponte in 1784 (on Il ricco d'un giorno in 1784) but they had fallen out. Trofonio's Cave with a libretto by Giambattista Casti has some remarkable pre-echoes of Cosi fan tutte. Its plot also uses two couples who are mixed up, though Trofonio's Cave remained firmly in the realm of farce; first the men are transformed to the consternation of the women, then after the men return to normal, the women go through the same process. The result is amusing without ever moving into the emotional territory occupied by Cosi fan tutte (a libretto which Salieri seems to have toyed with setting in the 1780's). But it is not just the plot links, Salieri's music provides remarkable pre-echoes of Mozart thus showing us, like Mozart's indebtedness to Michael Haydn in the Requiem, that Mozart's style came out of somewhere. Salieri's long, structural, multi-sectional finales (an operatic form invented by Galuppi) and the structure and style of some of the arias also point us to Mozart, as does the way Salieri handles the wind and the rich sound of the orchestra.
 
But the opera has neither the emotional impact nor the tunes of Mozart's. Still, there was a great deal to enjoy in the stylishly lively and zipping production (the recitatives were evidently somewhat trimmed). Jeremy Gray's production (in his own designs with costumes by Vikki Medhurst) was themed, rather effectively, on the episode of Dr Who where he meets Jane Austen! The main action took place with with 18th century characters in an Austen-esque library, but Trofonio's cave was the Tardis and Trofonio was the good doctor himself. It work enormously well; for the original audience Trofonio (a figure from myth) would still have had cultural resonance, so this was a good replacement.
 
The young cast was lively, engaging and not a little stylish. They clearly had great fun with the production, whilst contributing some highly engaging performances. The opera encompassed not just solos but a series of imaginative duets and ensembles in which the young singers blended and combined beautifully.  The opera was sung in Jeremy Gray's lively, and sometimes witty, translation and the singers communicative diction made no other help necessary.
 
Aoife O'Sullivan made a neatly pert Dori (the fun loving daughter). Christopher Turner as he philosophical suitor had great fun with his hippy alter-ego. Nicholas Merryweather, the lively suitor, combined a gift for comedy with a nice turn as the more serious alter-ego. The girls father, Aristone, a slightly prosy if well-meaning character, was played by James Harrison. Catherine Backhouse sang the role of the serious daughter Ofelia, giving a performance which belied the last minute nature of the arrangements, and Marieke Bernard-Berkel (one of the stage managers) proved and expressive mime so that there were many moments when we did not notice the extra artifice involved.
 
Matthew Stiff had a wonderful time in the relatively small but important role of Trofonio. This character gets the rather notable magic music, which first occurs in the overture, and Trofonio's first aria even included an off-stage chorus of spirits. The music was full of interest and drama, with hints of an infernal Don soon to come.
 
Paul Wingfield conducted Chroma, which was placed behind the scenes thus causing one or two balance problems. But overall the players did great service to Salieri's orchestral writing, particularly the wind players.
 
Not every 18th century opera is a hidden gem, but Trofonio's Cave is definitely worth revising and our thanks to Bampton Classical Opera for making it possible, and doing so in a production which did the work justice in such an engaging manner. It makes me wonder what Salieri's other operas are like, particularly the one with a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte.
 
 
 
 
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Robert Hugill

 

an enthusiastic performance of riotiously spirited music
Opera Britannia, 18 September 2015

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an enthusiastic performance of riotiously spirited music

Opera Britannia, 18 September 2015

Inevitably tarred with trumped up charges of murdering a precocious and scatologically inclined former child wonder, history, or more particularly, literature has not been kind to Antonio Salieri, so a rare opportunity to hear one of his operas is a pleasant treat in the UK. If the continent gets a much better deal with performances of Les Danaïdes on several occasions and La grotta di Trofonio itself having been performed in Lausanne back in 2005, Bampton Classical Opera make a welcome return to St John’s Smith Square in this semi-staged performance of Salieri’s comedy. The company are no strangers to Salieri themselves, having put on Falstaff in 2003.
 
The original libretto by Giovanni Casti was written prior to Da Ponte’s Così fan tutte but La grotta di Trofonio similarly has at its heart a pair of lovers whose relationship is challenged by an external party. Indeed, some of the original performers in Trofonio would go on to sing in Figaro and Così. The plot is admittedly a little as if The Tempest meets Così for a few martinis and a faceful of illicit substances with much merriment ensuing. The cave in question has the power to reverse a person’s personality, making them the complete opposite of their usual self. Couples get mixed up but all ends happily. It’s silly but enjoyable.
 
With such a basic story, it was good to see simple sets being used by director Jeremy Gray, with a library forming the domestic world of the lovers. This was to change upon the entry of Trofonio, with the cave of the title being created by the appearance of Dr Who’s Tardis, Trofonio himself entering dressed very much like the Tom Baker iteration. This idea was largely effective and resulted in an agreeably and generally uncluttered production. Despite this, there were a few hiccups with stagehands still moving across the stage as Trofonio arrived in Act 1 scene 2. The setting was largely Victorian with a few incongruous moments. It felt deeply anachronistic to have the more reserved couple turn into a stoned hippy and an extra from Austin Powers after passing through the doors of the Tardis. One would have relished seeing the singers rise to the challenge of portraying a couple living on the wild side of the Victorian age rather than a fairly easy option of the swinging 1960s.
 
Gray was also partially responsible, sharing duties with Gilly French, for the production’s English translation with many a rhyming couplet. The translation made the most of the jokes and good-natured humour with such conversations as:
“Are you familiar with the works of Plato?”
“Oh, come off it, you great potato.”
 
Musically there was much to enjoy: from the singers, the orchestra and indeed Salieri himself. The overture is a jolly little romp once passed the C minor introduction, music that would later appear to introduce Trofonio and his cave of wonders. The grim and gloomy world of mischievous magic was swept aside by a joyous allegro with bubbling wind figures and bright trumpet fanfares, all played with gusto by the Orchestra of Bampton Classical Opera under the baton of conductor Paul Wingfield. Wingfield led an enthusiastic performance of the riotously spirited music, such as the close of Artemidoro’s arietta “Hurrah for the joy that enraptures my heart”. The playing was not without a few rough patches, particularly the opening of Ofelia’s first aria where the slightly disjointed ensemble work thankfully settled into sweet harmony. If there was a more serious problem it was that the acoustic of the venue mixed with the orchestra’s brio often led to singers being overwhelmed and drowned out, especially during more bombastic moments. The finales briskly moved along, and there was some wonderful tone painting in a depiction of buzzing flies by the violins during the Act 2 finale. The cor anglais playing amusing depicted the suddenly intellectualism of the generally ditzy Plistene, in a sound world shared with Haydn’s Symphony 22.
 
As the father Aristone, James Harrison brought a compassionate, if a little bumbling, nature to the role. If he was often drowned out by the orchestra, he sang with a gently lyrical tone though he didn’t quite have the vocal power to project his lowest notes in “Let us consider the source of a river”.
 
Trofonio himself doesn’t get a lot to do, despite the opera being about his mysterious lair but Matthew Stiff made the most of what was written, with a commanding tone in his opening invocation of the spirits to assist him in his tricks that reminded one of the music for the Commendatore.
 
Due to unforeseen circumstances the role of the serious minded Ofelia was split between Catherine Backhouse who sang from the side of the stage whilst Marieke Bernard-Berkel acted out the role onstage. Coming in at such short notice, it was commendable that both performed well, with Barnard-Berkel miming through the role so convincingly that it was easy to just follow her actions and forget that she wasn’t singing. Backhouse herself sang well, producing some rich held notes in the exquisite “The fire of love and ardour”, a movement reminiscent of “Dove sono”. Her Act 2 aria following her transformation into a right little vixen was acted well and sung with humour, both performers seeming to enjoy themselves immensely, enjoyment that was shared by the audience.
 
By contrast, her more energetic sister Dori, sung by Aoife O’Sullivan, was a charming soubrette, though even she was given the chance of a more reflective aria in “Having secured a lover”. Both sopranos blended their voices well in the many ensemble pieces, though they kept a pleasantly distinctive tone much in keeping with their sharply differentiated characters. She worked well with Nicholas Merryweather, who took the role of her partner Plistene, with their duet, “In the average kind of marriage”, providing a similarly teasing relationship to that of Figaro and Susanna in Act 4 of Figaro. They introduced some charming comic effects in their bickering. Merryweather blustered through his part pleasantly and was able to produce a nice line of patter in the trio “”To help avoid a back-to-back collision”. His deeper tenor contrasted well with the lighter tone and higher range produced by Christopher Turner as Artemidoro. As with his performance last year in English Touring Opera’s production of Life on the Moon, his warm voice produced some fine legato phrasing, though there were moments in “These shady words”, with its overtones of “Che puro ciel” from Orfeo ed Euridice, that would have benefitted from this same approach rather than the rather hard attack with which he reached some of the higher notes. As with Merryweather the more spirited patter moments were delivered impishly and clearly.
 
This was very much an ensemble piece with the principal characters of the lovers acting and singing well together. One can only hope that this charming piece will get further similarly unpretentious airings.
 
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Llyr Carvana

 

bowled over by how strong the music was
Music OMH, 17 September 2015

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bowled over by how strong the music was

Music OMH, 17 September 2015

Peter Shaffer’s play and subsequent film Amadeus may have done Salieri a great disservice by portraying him as a mediocre talent and jealous murderer. At the same time, however, it helped to raise the composer’s profile, even if the subsequent revival of interest in his operas may be more attributable to a far wider movement that has also re-evaluated those of Vivaldi and Handel.
 
In 2003 Bampton Classical Opera produced Salieri’s Falstaff, and since July 2015 it has been touring La grotta di Trofonio (performed here in English as Trofonio’s Cave) for what are almost certainly the opera’s first ever appearances in the UK. With libretto by Giambattista Casti, it tells the story of two sisters – the straight-laced, philosophical Ofelia and the feisty, frivolous Dori – who plan to marry. Their prospective husbands, Artemidoro and Plistene respectively, are both perfect matches for the women in terms of their interests and demeanour, but things go awry when each encounters the magician Trofonio. He possesses a cave that alters the personality of anyone who enters it, so that Artemidoro becomes randy and carefree to the consternation of Ofelia, and Plistene becomes far too boring for Dori. Their former personalities are then restored but the shenanigans start again when the women enter the cave, with the scenario only being happily resolved when all four have been returned to their original states at the end.
This was the first Salieri opera that I or (judging by a straw poll conducted at the pre-concert talk) any other audience member had ever seen live. I was expecting something that, although undoubtedly a cut above the vast majority of operas that were churned out in the latter half of the eighteenth century, still fell short of Mozart’s classics from the period. In the event, however, I was bowled over by just how strong the music was and how similar it sounded to many other works. Since La grotta di Trofonio premiered in 1785 before Le nozze di Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787) and Così fan tutte (1790) it was this work that influenced those and not the other way around. Upon listening to the piece, it at least came as no surprise that it was Salieri, who counted Schubert, Beethoven and Liszt among his pupils, and not Mozart who was judged in Vienna at the time as being preeminent in opera.
 
The Overture highlights the darker side of Trofonio’s character by beginning in C minor before suggesting his playfulness by adopting a Haydnesque allegro. Taking into account the character of the magician alongside the music used to portray him, he feels like a cross between the Commendatore, Don Alfonso and Dulcamara, and some of his recitative could have come straight from Don Giovanni (or rather vice versa!). Certain ideas also seem to predate those to be found in works that came far later. For example, a song in which Dori and Plistene actually keep forgetting what comes next in it anticipates the antics of Ariadne auf Naxos, while a trio in which the men keep singing about going without actually leaving feels similar to ‘When the foeman bares his steel’ in The Pirates of Penzance.
 
This performance at St John’s, Smith Square was the final one in Bampton Classical Opera’s tour of the work that began in July. It was staged simply but effectively with the drama being placed broadly at the start of the twentieth century, a bookcase complete with ionic columns dominating the sisters’ home. Such safe surroundings, however, were swept aside as soon as Trofonio appeared, with the magician being portrayed as Doctor Who complete with sonic screwdriver, and his cave becoming the Tardis. The performance was in English with no surtitles, and although Gilly French and Jeremy Gray’s translation contained modern references (to electricity) and phrases (such as “It’s good to talk”) overall it felt straight forward and accessible rather than annoyingly anachronistic.
The orchestra, under the baton of Paul Wingfield, produced a beautiful and precise sound while the parts of the sisters’ father Aristone, Plistine, Artemidoro, Dori and Ofelia were ably taken by James Harrison, Nicholas Merryweather, Christopher Turner, Aoife O’Sullivan and Catherine Backhouse respectively. Backhouse was replacing Anna Starushkevych who had performed the role elsewhere, and although she sang from a music stand while Marieke Bernard-Berkel acted the part, this did not mar the experience. The highest accolades, however, go to Matthew Stiff as Trofonio who asserted his rich bass voice while entering the Tardis through one door as Tom Baker and exiting it via another as Jon Pertwee.
 
Given the similarity of the plots, it is plausible that Mozart was determined to ensure that Così fan tutte specifically outshone La grotta di Trofonio. If so, da Ponte may well have been happy to support him in this aim since, although he had collaborated with Salieri, their relationship had frequently been stormy and he had originally written the Così libretto for the composer. It certainly seems likely that Mozart gave La grotta di Trofonio the utmost respect, and I suspect that the reason the opera (like Salieri’s others) ultimately faded into obscurity while Mozart’s went on to flourish had less to do with the music than the plot.
 
In Così fan tutte the men are set a challenge that they make a conscious decision to undertake, even though they know the dangers, and by the end everyone has changed in terms of learning something about themselves and the world. In La grotta di Trofonio the quartet of lovers seem more passive, with each showing far less resistance or understanding of the risks as they are invited into the cave. Similarly, when the two women declare at the end that they saw very different things inside the cave it is questionable whether they are demonstrating any real transformation in character or simply reasserting their original ones. Were I to watch the opera several times, I might well see more in the characters, but still I suspect that there was too little in them and the plot to sustain interest time and again.
 
This, however, is simply an hypothesis as to why La grotta di Trofonio fell out of favour in the long-term for it enjoyed immense success in the decades that followed its premiere, and the piece should in no way seem weak to us today. Indeed, I felt I had experienced the brilliance of Mozart only with added freshness since I had never heard the music before. This was an evening that almost left one wanting to devote the rest of one’s life to studying the operas of Salieri!
 
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Sam Smith

 

nothing short of magnificent
Boulezian, 21 September 2015

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nothing short of magnificent

Boulezian, 21 September 2015

The best and most important production and performance I have seen yet from Bampton Classical Opera, on its annual visit to St John’s Smith Square! I cannot have been the only member of the audience seeing a complete Salieri opera for the first time; to say that it exceeded my expectations would be an understatement. I had previously heard a few operatic excerpts, some of his sacred music (treated with all the respect it deserves by Riccardo Muti) and some instrumental music. La grotta di Trofonio emerged, with the usual caveats concerning a first hearing, not only as a work I should happily hear again, superior to many operas in the dread repertoire, but as a musical achievement not so far off the operas of Haydn. (Any regular readers will know that is no idle compliment from me.) The Gluckian side of Salieri, about which we hear more often, is considerably less in evidence, but this is a comedy, and Salieri marshals his resources accordingly.
 
Indeed, it is the symphonic Haydn who comes immediately to mind in the Overture, its slow, mysterious Introduction, swiftly put to side by high yet directed spirits, having, in a display of long-term musico-dramatic thinking, sown the seeds for the mysteries of Trofonio’s cave. Over the work’s two acts, a full Classical orchestra engages the mind and the senses to a degree I should never have imagined. Vocal writing is at the least accomplished throughout, and often rather more than that. Ensembles are perhaps a particular revelation, reminding or informing us that both the genesis of opera buffa and its musical modernity are a more complicated story than many would have us believe. What we lack, you may not be surprised to hear, is what we lack in Haydn: depth of characterisation and of emotion, a hint of those musico-dramatic epiphanies which change one’s life forever, etc. And, like many operas, it goes on longer than it need, especially in the second act. (You see how hard I am struggling not to mention someone else by name.)
 
The plot is easily dealt with. A father, Aristone, is – unusually! – happy with his two daughters’ choice of suitors. They enter Trofonio’s cave, emerge, following his incantations, with their personal qualities reversed: bookish to fun-loving and vice versa. The reversal is reversed, but then the daughters, tempted into the cave, suffer the same fate. After similar incomprehension, their reversal too is reversed. A wedding can be prepared. You might think there a similarity with a certain libretto of Lorenzo da Ponte (which Salieri actually began to set); I couldn’t possibly comment.
 
This revival, almost certainly the first British production, is the project of Gilly French (the English translation is also hers) and Jeremy Gray, who also directs and provides set designs. There is no attempt to offer the depths that the opera itself lacks. What might seem simply to be of the surface for a certain opera whose premiere came not so much as five years later, in 1790, also at Vienna’s Burgtheater, proves well suited to the different nature of Salieri’s collaboration with the far-from-unintellectual Giovanni Battista Casti (whom many of us will know both from Prima la musica e poi la parole and its role in the genesis of Strauss’s Capriccio). Action moves to 1910; I know, because I was the lucky recipient of a dated ‘Downton Abbey’ wedding invitation during the performance. That seems to be a favoured period of the company – attractive, doubtless, to the English country-house opera scene, and also easy to dress, but here, in its Importance of Being Earnest atmosphere, perhaps particularly appropriate. Trofonio’s cave is the TARDIS: make of the time-travelling what you will. It is decidedly unclear whether the Tom Baker-clad Trofonio himself should be a charlatan (a few years later, someone might have offered a Mesmerist slant) or someone who enables self-reflection. Does the one exclude the other? Such invitations and ambiguities are anything but heavy-handed interventions; indeed, they are present in the work, whether intentionally or otherwise. Most importantly, they offer one space to think beyond the bare bones of the plot. (You might be surprised how many people complain about misogyny and a lack of ‘realism’ in one Ferrarese entertainment, how many take it at its librettist’s apparent word.)
 
The playing of CHROMA under Paul Wingfield was nothing short of magnificent, aided by the excellent acoustic of St John’s, Smith Square. I cannot recall a single tempo choice that did not convince, and the array of musical colour, not least in the woodwind section, showed quite why a young composer from, say, Salzburg might have chosen to make his living in Vienna. The orchestral contribution was not the least, indeed was arguably the greatest, musical offering of all, given the scale and ambition of Salieri’s writing.
 
Moreover, the cast would have graced any house. As Aristone, James Harrison made much of the musical and verbal text, providing a crucial anchor of stability, but never dullness, as identities switched around him. Matthew Stiff proved an engaging, properly ambiguous agent of disruption as Trofonio; his invocation of the spirits, bolstered by an able chorus, had me thinking of Saul’s visit to the Witch of Endor.  Nicholas Merryweather and Christopher Turner proved equally successful in both of their personalities, offering as much character, generally born of subtlety in vocal colouring, as such an opera permits. Likewise Aoife O’Sullivan as Dori, in her transformation from fun-loving daughter to would-be Platonist, her brightness of tone never wearing. We should have heard Anna Starushkevych as Ofelia, but visa problems – is this not a country to be proud of? – prevented the Ukrainian mezzo from travelling, so instead we were treated to a collaboration from the side-of-stage singer Catherine Backhouse and the centre-stage acting of Marieke Bernard-Berkel. It was no distraction at all; indeed, there was arguably an intriguing dramatic alienation – think of the subject matter, assumption of different personas – to be had from the situation. More to the point, perhaps, Backhouse’s short-notice performance showed her to be an excellent artist, rich of tone and admirably clear of diction, and Bernard-Berkel’s stage presence proved equally impressive.   
 
No, of course it is not an opera by you-know-who. It is an opera by Salieri. The action remains largely on the surface, but does not prevent one from thinking further for oneself, and arguably invites one to do so. There is none of the agony, indeed none of the greatness in any respect, of Così fan tutte – all right; I shall finally name it and him by name – but if we are to restrict ourselves to the level of Mozart, then survivors will be well-nigh non-existent.  Bampton Classical Opera has done La grotta di trofonio and Salieri proud. May our opera houses take note. Alas, I shall not hold my breath; after all, is not another revival of La triviata a more pressing artistic requirement?
 
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Mark Berry

 

...unearthed some real magic
Opera Today, 19 September 2015

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...unearthed some real magic

Opera Today, 19 September 2015

Demonised by Pushkin and Peter Shaffer, Antonio Salieri lives in the public imagination as the embittered rival of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — whose genius he lamented and revered in equal measure, and against whom he schemed and plotted at the Emperor Joseph II’s Viennese court.
 
In fact, it was Hofkapellmeister Salieri — teacher of Beethoven, Czerny, Schubert, Meyerbeer and Liszt — who was the ‘celebrity’, enjoying elevated social standing and the artistic esteem of his contemporaries, including, to judge from this superb production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio by Bampton Classical Opera, Mozart himself. For, as scholars such as John Rice have noted, the latter does not seem to have been averse to a little musical and dramatic ‘borrowing’ from Salieri.
 
The plot of La grotta di Trofonio blends conventional buffo merriment and entanglements with darker supernatural currents. The aristocratic Aristone has two daughters: Ofelia is serious and solemn with a penchant for philosophy; Dori is frivolous and fun-loving, with — in this production — a partiality for amateur dramatics. They are due to wed their beaux, having chosen suitors whose personalities perfectly match their own: the pensive Artemidoro and the playful Plistene respectively. However, an encounter in a magical wood with a meddling ‘master-of-ceremonies’, who tempts first the men and then the girls into his enchanted cave, results in radical transformations of personality which lead the lovers to question the very nature of love itself.
 
As well as an echo of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream there is also obvious foreshadowing of Mozart’s Così fan tutte and, in its mixture of comic mundanityand the blackly macabre, Don Giovanni. Research by Rice suggests that the network of cross-fertilisation and derivation was complex. In his somewhat unreliable Memoirs, Da Ponte described Salieri as ‘a most cultivated and intelligent man […] whom I loved and esteemed both out of gratitude and by inclination’; but their first collaboration, Il ricco d’un giorno, flopped in 1784 and the composer wasted no time in blaming his literary partner, declaring that he would sooner cut off his own fingers than accept another libretto from Da Ponte. Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio was first staged at Vienna’s Burgtheater in 1785, shortly before Figaro was premiered there, with a libretto by Da Ponte’s main rival, Giambattista Casti. However, the success of Mozart’s Il nozze di Figaro in May 1786 seems to have encouraged Salieri to reconsider his assessment of Da Ponte’s literary skills, for two extant trio drafts discovered by Rice in the National Library in Vienna suggest that Salieri began work on a setting of the Così libretto in the late 1780s. The work was, for reasons we can only speculate, abandoned, and it was Mozart who was to pick up the discarded text. How ironic, then, that Salieri’s La Grotta di Trofonio seems to anticipate the satirical artifice of Mozart’s comedy of 1790.
 
Both operas possess a meticulously wrought symmetry; moreover, there are striking similarities between some of the ensembles. Even the casts overlapped: having taken the role of Aristone in La Grotta, four years later the veteran buffo bass Francesco Bussani stepped into Don Alfonso’s shoes, while Francesco Benucci swapped the role of Salieri’s magician, Trofonio, for Mozart’s Guglielmo. Cast as the contemplative Artemidoro by Salieri, tenor Vincenzo Calvesi was Mozart’s first Ferrando; restored to his serious self, Artemidoro sings a cavatina, ‘Sognai, o sogno ancor?’, which has much in common with Ferrando’s ‘Un’aura amorosa’.
 
This first UK-staging in modern times by Bampton Classical Opera was first presented in July, in the Deanery Gardens at Bampton, Oxfordshire. The outdoor setting and summer sunshine lent the evening a light-hearted ebullience which perfectly matched the directorial tone; the latter maintained an admirable balance between irreverent wit and musical sincerity. I wondered how the production would translate to the more sombre Baroque setting of St John’s Smith Square with its monumental pediments and Corinthian columns. But, in the event, with some slight tweaking of the set placement to fit the new dimensions, Trofonio’s ‘cave’ seemed quite at home amid the lofty spaciousness.
 
In this production, director Jeremy Gray once again demonstrates an impressive ability to employ parallels and allusions which, as well as providing visual wit and invention — both entertaining and erudite — offer fresh, thought-provoking ideas about an opera’s essential ‘meaning’. The opera opens in Aristone’s library, a post-Edwardian domain whose dusty shelves of lofty tomes conceal the patriarch’s secret stash of gin: clearly all is not what it seems, and the young lovers’ demure boaters and bodices will soon give way to less sedate attire. For, with their father’s blessing assured, the engaged couples make the mistake of wandering into the wood, and into the conjuror’s clutches; and, it is not just their personalities which will be translated but Time itself. The bookcases swivel to reveal a blue 1960’s Police Box from which materialises a Tom Baker look-a-like — long stripy scarf, grubby blue frockcoat and a fondness for jelly babies: a slightly down-at-heel Edwardian gent turned eccentric apothecary of the emotions. A spin in the Tardis turns Artemidoro into a long-haired rocker, sporting bandana and flares, flamboyantly strumming air-guitar; a dash through the decades transfigures the demure Ofelia, a flash of a knee-high white boot anticipating her metamorphosis to bopping 60s wild-child in thigh-high A-line shift dress (costumes, Vikki Medhurst).
 
But, the absurdity and impudence of the staging never got in the way of high musical values or dramatic authenticity. Salieri’s arias were treated with respect, and sung and staged with refinement; similarly, the numerous inventive duets and ensembles were crafted to create dramatic pace and variety. Remarkably, the cast, apparently so suited to their primary manifestations, were equally convincing when subject to Trofonio’s subversive spells, demonstrating impressive diversity and range.
 
As the spirited Plistine, baritone Nicholas Merryweather was a strong vocal and stage presence, using the text (an amusing and deft translation by Gilly French) with characteristic discernment, and demonstrating a wide range of vocal colours as Plistine’s temperament evolved and revolved. Swapping his stylish blazer for a slightly-too-small, homely cardigan, on exiting The Doctor’s Tardis Merryweather tempered the ardour in his voice to deliver a gently lyrical reflective air, his new-found and utterly convincing gravity and self-possession further reinforced by the rich, low woodwind accompaniment.
 
Tenor Christopher Turner had no difficulty with the considerable vocal challenges of Artemidoro’s tenor arias: the evenness of tone and colour was impressive during the expansive phrases of his long Act 1 aria; and, if his boogying and grooving was a touch gauche post-transformation, it only added to the charm, reminding us of Artemidoro’s former solemnity.
Irish soprano Aoife O’Sullivan was vivacious as the gregarious, high-spirited Dori. O’Sullivan’s voice is pure and well-centred, and has a lovely sheen which perfectly captured Dori’s joyful breeziness. She and Merryweather were a beguiling comic duo, but the dull and dowdy Dori was just as convincing.
 
Writing of Bampton’s July performance at the Deanery, I admired the singing of Ukrainian mezzo-soprano Anna Starushkevych, in the role of Ofelia, commenting that her voice seemed to be ‘growing in richness, depth and allure’. It was disappointing to learn, therefore, that problems with a visa meant that Strarushkevych was stranded in the Ukraine (evidently, having the Prime Minister as one of your company’s patrons is no advantage in the face of the administrative intractability of international bureaucracy). The role of Ofelia was ‘split in two’, with Catherine Backhouse singing from the side of the platform and French-born actress Marieke Bernard-Berkel acting the part. Any misgivings were immediacy swept aside, however; and, oddly but somewhat neatly, in an opera whose central trope is the ‘split-personality’, this bipartite presentation was a piquant addition! Backhouse studied on the Opera Studies course at the Guildhall School of Music, and her eloquent, engaging vocal performance demonstrated why she has now been awarded a Fellowship at the GSMD. Her bright, vibrant sound projected well, seeming to emanate from the heart of the drama; she coped with the demands of the role — the rapid, large leaps, for example, in the central section of Ofelia’s first aria — and had the stamina and diversity of tone required in the long aria sung upon Ofelia’s transformation in Act 2.
 
Bernard-Berkel had been the Assistant Stage Manager for the production (which, in addition to performances at Bampton in July, was also presented at Westonbirt, Gloucestershire, at the end of August). But, even so, given that she had had only a single rehearsal in which to familiarise herself with the details of the intricate stage choreography and timing, her self-assurance and total credibility in the role were noteworthy and outstanding. Apparently, Bernard-Berkel has some experience in silent movies, and this evidently served her well; Ofelia’s shock, in the Act 1 Finale, when confronted with an Artemidoro who has abandoned his bust of Plato for an air-guitar was a perfect picture of disapprobation and distaste.
 
As the debonair Aristone, baritone James Harrison demonstrated a sharp eye for potential drollery, and an attractive voice. The second Act, in which the female characters’ personality-switch follows that of the men in the preceding Act, might have been repetitive, but Harrison’s strong singing at the start of the Act, when he tries to reassure his daughters, and Aristone’s urgent, compelling appeal to Trofonio at the close, offered a neat dramatic frame for the psychological merry-go-round on which the young lovers spin. Trofonio’s richly scored aria of self-congratulation was also a highpoint of the Act. In the outdoor setting at Bampton I found Matthew Stiff’s Trofonio a tad underwhelming; the role was lyrically sung, and the diction in the recitatives was excellent, but that touch of dark menace was missing. Here, at St. John’s, Stiff made much more of an impact — he created a mysterious amalgam of whimsy and brooding. Trofonio’s first aria, half-way through Act 1, was an alarming invocation; and the small male chorus successfully evoked the ‘invisible spirits’ that the dark magician summons. Stiff’s baritone carried well, and he used both text and voice effectively, countering the parody of his time-travelling impersonation, to powerfully conjure a demonic world of the black arts — indeed, at the end of the opera, Trofonio boasts that he is judge and master of the Underworld and of the Devil!
 
St John’s is not an ideal venue for opera, and one problem that has to be resolved is the matter of where to place the orchestra. Bampton have experimented with various arrangements over the years; here, the musicians of CHROMA, conducted by Paul Wingfield, were placed behind the set. Whatever difficulties this might have presented, the singers dealt with them confidently and Wingfield had an excellent command of both the overall dramatic pace and the expressive shaping of particular numbers, allowing for moments of stillness within the prevailing muddle and mayhem. Also, I found that Salieri’s wonderful writing for the woodwind was even more immediate and characterful than it had been at Bampton. The clarinets and bassoons introduced Ofelia’s first cavatina, in which she sings of her devotion for Artemidoro, with a delicious sweetness and sentimentality, worthy of the Countess’s Act 2 aria in Figaro. As Artemidoro wandered through the forest, nearing the sorcerer’s supernatural ‘cave’, oboes and flutes conveyed a bucolic serenity which would soon be overturned by the magical machinations.
 
Assistant Director (movement) Triona Adams appeared as the non-singing, put-upon maid who, having carried out endless chores — serving tea, arranging wedding bunting — threw caution to the wind and, in the closing moments, accepted Trofonio’s invitation into the Time-machine. The Tardis can transport its occupants back or forth to any point in time, or to any place. Bampton Classical Opera’s time-travels to the eighteenth-century have so often led to valuable operatic discoveries and resurrections; this trip to Trofonio’s Grotto unearthed some real magic.
 
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Claire Seymour

 

Programme notes

Synopsis in detail
Jeremy Gray

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Synopsis in detail

ACT 1

A dark and sinister introduction to the Overture introduces a theme associated with the magician Trofonio, but the gloom is soon dispelled by a brilliant Haydnesque allegro.

SCENE 1 is set in a comfortable country house.  In a robust and fluid Trio [My beautiful daughters are both still unmarried], kindly Aristone is sympathetic to the marriage plans of his daughters Ofelia and Dori and wants only for their happiness.  He’s well aware that the girls are very different in spirit, but they have made sensible choices of boyfriends – Ofelia, who is happiest when she has a heavy tome of Greek philosophy in her hands, loves the sensible and caring Artemidoro; her sister Dori is a cheerful girl, more inclined to partying than studying, and she has found the perfect match in her lively boyfriend Plistene.  With plenty of colourful woodwind, the trio clearly anticipates Mozart’s Così fan tutte; the lively allegretto changes to a calming and prayerful andantino with organ-like orchestration[…with a father that we treasure, kindly heavens, see our pleasure and protect us to the end].  Confidence and certainty are established from the start.

Trumpets add a festive colour to a second brief and lively Trio which reaffirms the mood of the opening number: Aristone promises support to his daughters’ choices [I now am apprised of all that you mention, I see your intention, will do what I can], and they acknowledge their shared appreciation [There’s no better parent, there’s no finer man].

Dori goes out for fresh air, leaving Ofelia in a serene Aria [The fire of love and ardour burns with a quiet flame] to muse on her quiet and serious love-affair.  A trio of clarinets and bassoon establishes her love of study in an expressive and refined Andante; the lengthy instrumental introduction anticipates that to the Countess’ first aria in Figaro.  A powerfully contrasting allegro section warns of danger when passion reigns unchecked – if it opposes reason, sorrow and suffering ensue.  She is joined by Artemidoro, and they share their love of classical philosophy.

In a riotous and quirky Quartet [These delightful and happy embraces are the aces a lover employs] their scholarly quiet is shattered by Dori and Plistene who are singing and dancing, engaged in rehearsing amateur dramatics.

Aristone dismisses the girls in order to quiz the boys on their intentions.  In an appropriately lengthy and paternalistic Aria [Let us consider the source of a river: it can section in different directions], he explains how his daughters, although twins, can be so different in character.  The orchestral accompaniment evokes the flow and journey of a river.

Plistene and Dori tease each other about their marital expectations; in a varied and colourful Duet [In the average kind of marriage there is reason to be cheerful], their bickering gives way to love and Plistene, after a fair amount of hinting, proposes marriage.

SCENE 2 is set deep in a forest.  A dark cave or grotto with two entrances is guarded by the capricious wizard Trofonio.  In an Aria with Chorus [Unseen, invisible, spirits ineffable] he summons spirits, who are at first reluctant, to perform his magical experiments which can transform human personality.  The strikingly dark and imaginative D minor music is central to Salieri’s designation of the opera as being ‘di stile magico-buffo’, and has already appeared at the opening of the overture.  Salieri noted in a copy that this aria ‘is purely magic; and it seems to me that the music has the right character.  But for it to have effect the voice that sings it must be of great power, and dark.’ 

Once the spirits have been quelled into submission, Artemidoro enters seeking solitude and nature and carrying a copy of Plato’s Dialogues.  The music of his Aria [These shady woods provide me blessings abundant and smiling] beautifully evokes pastoral beauty and tranquillity; with warbling birdcalls on oboes and flutes it lies somewhere between Gluck’s depiction of the Elysian Fields in Orfeo and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.  He reflects on how the tranquillity of nature nurtures his philosophical study.  He encounters Trofonio whose name is famed as an ancient sage, and so eagerly enters the cave in search of enlightenment. 

Meanwhile Plistene is also in the woods.  Despite his engagement, his Aria shows that he is in search of amorous distraction: In the woods they say are hiding nymphs incessantly providing playful laughter and distraction.  He’s also looking for Artemidoro, and so he rashly accepts Trofonio’s invitation to follow into the grotto.

Artemidoro emerges from the other side of the cave, and his nervous and energetic Accompanied Recitative and Arietta [Hurrah for the joy that enraptures my heart!] show that he is now quite transformed - he can no longer think of dusty philosophy and cares only for fun.  Salieri wrote that this music must be characterised by ‘unnatural forced cheerfulness, and must be played, sung and acted accordingly to produce a strong effect.’ Trofonio is delighted to observe the results of his experiment.

Next Plistene comes out of the cave, dazed and thoughtful, and his ponderous Accompanied Recitative expresses his horror at finding that someone (in fact Artemidoro) has rudely discarded a volume of Plato.   A remarkable Cavatina praises Plato[Teacher and leader, hear me!].  Here Salieri provides music of simple solemnity, accompanied by the stark sonorities of two cor anglais and bassoon: ‘everything must be performed in a tranquil, almost sombre style, but one that goes to the heart.’  Trofonio reflects that men of feeble merit will surely value truth which enlightens the spirit.

The brilliant extended Finale is one of emotional confusion and constantly changing textures, with a growing impetus and energy.  Ofelia is still musing on the quiet nature of love and friendship [Conversation is the pleasure which I treasure most of all] but is horrified by the rudeness and crudity of Artemidoro: she tries to forgive his behaviour, blaming it on the weather, but soon finds she cannot bear his company.  Next Dori and Plistene encounter each other [Who is Plistene to disobey me!], but his unprecedented immersion in Plato dismays her, and she also leaves in dismay.  Aristone [I am looking for my daughters] is confused to find the girls distressed by any proximity to their beloved fiancés, and is bewildered by all the entries and exits.  In the final scene, the boys make their objections: Aristone, your daughter has vexed me, runs away and avoids and rejects me.  All sing of their utter confusion: This transformation, this sudden switching has got me twitching, can no-one explain?  As in many eighteenth-century comic operas, the act ends in a sense of utter confusion.

 

ACT 2

In a flamboyant and often noisy Aria [If he gets you or upsets you, you could tame him or restrain him] Aristone tries to convince his daughters that they will in time be able change their boyfriends back to their own tastes.

Dori is unusually reflective and perhaps a little depressed, as we hear in her Aria with its melancholy opening and the distinctive colour of flute and bassoon: Having secured a lover, I’d not intended that madness so soon would have to end it.  In a contrasting passage she regains something of her vitality, reminding herself that she likes men who are facetious and amusing.

The boys remain confused by their fiancées’ coolness, and decide that only a further visit to Trofonio’s cave can provide explanation.  In a brief animated Duet [Would you go barging in with volition, without permission, isn’t that brash?] they argue noisily over etiquette – should they simply enter unannounced and uninvited?  Trofonio, visitors!  They enter.

Their shouting disturbs Trofonio, who is curious to see what happens next.  A powerfully surging Accompanied Recitative expresses Plistene’s relief as he appears outside and realises that he has been restored to his former jovial character [What’s happened?  I’m defenceless…].  He leaves to look for Artemidoro, not realising that he too is about to emerge from the cave, transformed back to sobriety and scholarship.  Artemidoro’s wistful Aria [A dream….  am I still dreaming?], one of the loveliest in the opera, again demonstrates Salieri’s lyricism and evocative use of the woodwind; it has been argued that this number has much in common with Mozart’s Un’aura amorosa in Così fan tutte, sung by the same tenor Vincenzo Calvesi four years later.

Trofonio celebrates his power in a richly-scored Cavatina [This enchanted habitation

will be praised with acclamation] which Salieri appears to have added as an afterthought – he described it as ‘a little energetic piece to break up the delicate things that surround it: it produces a nice chiaroscuro.’ The arrival of the girls causes him to break off suddenly, and he’s curious to see if his magic works on women.  Once he has calmed their fright, he elegantly entices them into the cave in a serene minuet-like Trio [So enter, lovely lady: my grotto is cool and shady], whose sound world again anticipates Così fan tutte.  This is the scene depicted in the charming title-page engraving of the 1785 printed score, which presumably records an actual performance at Laxenburg or Vienna.

In a scurrying allegro Trio Aristone, Artemidoro and Plistene are hunting for the girls who have disappeared: To help avoid a back-to-back collision, I have constructed a plan of precision. Their panic is delightfully conveyed, especially in the repeated and stuttered Go…go. ..go near the end (in the original, Qua…qua…qua).

Dori appears from the cave and is uncharacteristically taciturn when she meets Plistene. Ofelia emerges in a very different mood and her whimsical allegretto Aria La ra la lee quickly became the most popular number in the whole opera, especially as sung and danced by Nancy Storace: it remained one of Nancy’s party-pieces after she returned from Vienna to England.  Meeting Artemidoro, both are bewildered by each other’s character, and they bicker all the way through a busy Duet: That sudden, churlish pouting, that air of melancholia hardly will make me follow you.

Aristone finds his daughters, and is further mystified.  The boys are again repulsed, and Artemidoro suggests to Aristone that perhaps Trofonio might come up with an explanation.

The Finale begins with Aristone appropriately intoning his request at the cave’s entrance: Trofonio, Trofonio, philosopher, magus, I know it’s outrageous, but I’m all alone-i-o.  Both the unseen spirits and the wizard reply, and Trofonio is surprisingly happy to reveal the magic: If they enter there the main way but then do not leave the same way, then their characters are swapped.

Ofelia is still in a lively mood [A life is for living, not hiding away.  And my way of living’s to laugh every day!] and Dori remains philosophical [May the gods protect and save us].  Trofonio leads them into the cave whilst Aristone wisely waits outside.  The boys await the reappearance of the girls with bated breath.

In the closing sextet, Trofonio leads the girls out, now restored to normality.  Their experience within the cave has been enlightening:  Ofelia saw quite clearly forces of nature fashion austerely, whereas Dori saw nothing inside that grotto except a lot of what looked like cookware.  The couples make up, and Aristone continues to refuse entry into the cave.  The mortals decide it’s high time to get out of the woods and escape from Trofonio: Mustn’t stay, let’s get away!

Jeremy Gray
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Prima la musica
Jeremy Gray

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Prima la musica

There’s perhaps a fascinating musical discovery waiting to be made by a fortunate scholar.   On 26 September 1785 Das Wienerblättchen announced: ‘For the happy recovery of the favourite virtuosa Mme. Storace the Court Theatre poet Herr Abbate da Ponte has produced an Italian song of joy: Per la recuperata salute di Ophelia.  This has been set to music, to be sung at the pianoforte, by the three famous Kapellmeister Salieri, Mozart and Cornetti, and is for sale at the art establishment of Artaria Company on the Michaelsplatz at 17 kr’.  No copy of this celebratory cantata, For the recovered health of Ophelia, printed by the leading Viennese publishers Artaria, has ever been traced, although it is hard to credit that there is not one lurking hidden somewhere on a library shelf.  It was listed in Mozart’s catalogue as K477a.  A compositional collaboration between Salieri and Mozart, along with the librettist Lorenzo da Ponte (the third name, Cornetti, may be a pseudonym, possibly of Stephen Storace), is notable and suggests a rather different dynamic between the leading lights of Viennese music than is usually assumed.  But whose recovered health was being celebrated?

Earlier in 1785, Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio was premièred, possibly first at the Emperor Joseph II’s country palace at Laxenburg a few miles south of Vienna and then publicly in town at the great Burgtheater on 12 October.  The ‘Ophelia’ of the cantata’s title is the opera’s delightful character, the bookworm daughter of Aristone.  At the première the rôle was sung by one of the most renowned operatic sopranos of her age, Anna (Nancy) Selina Storace, described by her contemporary the music historian Charles Burnay as ‘unrivalled, being an excellent actress as well as a masterly singer.’  Her ‘recovered health’ refers to her triumphant return to the stage after a traumatic loss of voice mid-opera (coupled perhaps with ill-health caused by her pregnancy) during the première of her brother Stephen’s Gli sposi malcontenti on 1 June 1785. 

The collaboration between Salieri and Da Ponte on this cantata may also indicate a patching-up of a bad relationship occasioned by the failure of an earlier opera Il ricco d’un giorno (1784) after which Salieri ‘swore that he would rather lose a hand than set another line’ of Da Ponte’s poetry.  The librettist for Trofonio therefore was Da Ponte’s major rival in Vienna, Giambattista Casti (1724-1803) whose Il Re Teodoro in Venezia had proved such a triumph in Vienna when set by Giovanni Paisiello.  Casti’s libretto of Trofonio, which he claimed was written ‘to mock the Devil, and the magical exorcisms practiced by sorcerers and charlatans, and the feigned paroxysms of wild-eyed fanatics and imposters’ was underway by February 1785.  Rehearsals began around May but were interrupted by Storace’s illness and perhaps the première was delayed as a result.

Aside from Nancy Storace, Casti and Salieri were able to gather an outstanding cast of Italian singers resident in the court opera company, and significantly several were employed again in 1786 for the première of another comic opera which, however, initially fared rather poorly – Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro.  Trofonio was played by Francesco Benucci (later Figaro, as well as Leporello in Don Giovanni and Guglielmo in Così fan tutte) and Stefano Mandini sang Plistene (later Count Almaviva).  Celeste Coltellini, the daughter of the librettist who had written the text for Salieri’s  Armida, sang Dori – the Emperor Joseph II wrote that ‘her voice is not as strong or as pleasant as Storace’s, her acting is overdone, but one cannot deny that she brings out different characters quite well’ (later Paisiello created for her the triumphant title-role in Nina).  Two other leading male singers completed the cast: Francesco Bussani (Aristone) went on to create the Commendatore in Don Giovanni and Don Alfonso in Così, and the tenor Vincenzo Calvesi (Artemidoro) was the first Ferrando.  Nancy Storace, the darling not only of the Viennese public but of the Emperor went on to sing the first Susanna in Figaro.  The Viennese première of Trofonio was a runaway success, and was followed by a remarkable run of twenty-five further performances in Vienna over the next two years.  Count Karl Zinzendorf, politician, opera-goer and indefatigable diarist, who found some complaint in the tedium of the scenes, nevertheless recorded his favourable opinion of ‘the charming music, the extraordinary costumes, Storace with her philosopher’s mantle was pretty and Coltellini was marvelous in her role.’

All this makes clear the significant chronological sequence: Salieri’s Trofonio preceded Mozart’s Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787) and Così fan tutte (1790).  Yet when listening to the structures of arias and ensembles, the two extraordinarily exciting finales, the ability to characterise both introspection and craziness and the superbly colourful orchestration with its extensive use of woodwind (a ploy undoubtedly to enthuse the Emperor), we have to acknowledge that Salieri created here a work of rare quality, from which Mozart was able to profit extensively and imitate to his own ends.  The combination of the demonic and the superficial, so clearly stated in Salieri’s overture, was to be recreated by Mozart in Don Giovanni and there can be little doubt that the symmetrical structure with two pairs of lovers was to influence Da Ponte when he wrote Così and Mozart when he composed it.  In fact Da Ponte’s libretto of Così was first offered to Salieri (the two had patched up their disagreement) who began composing the opening two trios before giving up on it in a fit of creative despair. 

The exhilarating variety of Salieri’s score is perhaps necessary to divert attention away from a plot of predictable simplicity: Count Zinzendorf complained that ‘the theme is without imagination… always the garden, always the grotto, always the transmutations.’  Some may of course find this refreshing after the convoluted Goldonian plots so beloved by librettists of comedy in the later eighteenth century, with their multiple intrigues, deceits and disguises, Coltellini’s La finta semplice (set by the youthful Mozart and performed at Bampton in 2013) being a prime example.  Casti, who became a sharp and cynical political commentator, liberally graced his text with classical references, supported by erudite footnotes, which undoubtedly appealed to the scholarly Salieri and were perhaps intended to elevate the tone and status of opera buffa.  Its ancient Greek setting and references to pagan philosophy may have derived from Paisiello’s successful Socrate immaginario.  The Salieri scholar John A Rice has pointed out that the ‘normal emotional dynamics of opera buffa – jealousy, infatuation, seduction, concerns about money and social status – are largely absent.’  All that happens is that the romantic certainties of two young couples are disrupted by their accidental encounter with a playfully demonic meddler, the wizard-philosopher Trofonio, who inhabits a cave deep in a forest.  This was after all the period when wealthy landowners added romantic frisson to their landscape estates by creating ornamental grottos, and populating them with professional ‘hermits’, like theme-park actors.  Perhaps in the delightful forested estate at Laxenburg, visitors of the Emperor might have encountered an apparently real-life Trofonio. 

La grotta di Trofonio was written in the mid-phase of an illustrious operatic career which saw the creation of perhaps 41 operas.  As a pupil of Florian Leopold Gassmann and a protégé of Gluck, Salieri was a dominant figure in European opera, with major triumphs in Vienna, Paris and Milan, where his L’Europa riconosciuta inaugurated La Scala opera house in 1778.  He worked across the whole range of contemporary operatic genres: elevated Italian opera seria, grand French tragédie lyrique in the manner of Gluck, German Singspiel and Italian opera buffa.  Uneven he may have been, but Salieri was a composer of enormous courage and imagination, constantly pushing at the boundaries of his art and in many ways going well beyond his more conventional Italian contemporaries Cimarosa and Paisiello.  He was obsessive about refining and improving his works.  He cared deeply about the dramatic impact of his works on stage and the value of the text, and worked closely with his librettists – John A Rice has suggested that his close supervision of the inexperienced Da Ponte ‘probably contributed to the strength of the librettos that Da Ponte later wrote for Mozart.’  But ultimately he believed in the spiritual enlightenment which music could provide (‘Music, divine imitation of nature, how I thank you’) and it is characteristic that he entitled a work written in 1786 for Joseph II, again with a libretto by Casti (and programmed the same evening as Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor), Prima la musica e poi le parole (First the music and then the words).

Trofonio was one of his greatest successes and there were around 30 different productions across Europe within about 10 years.  Typical of travelling opera in the eighteenth century, the score went through many modifications to suit local singers, resources and tastes.  In Paris in 1790 in a performance including Stefano Mandini from the original cast, it was given to great acclaim, although with added arias composed by Cherubini.  In London, where Nancy continued to perform (and dance) her ‘La ra la ra from Act 2 on many occasions, the opera was performed at Drury Lane in 1791 under Stephen Storace’s musical direction as The Cave of Trophonius.  But the music was a pastiche, mostly by Storace with interpolations by Attwood and Paisiello, and may have included nothing from Salieri’s score: it was not a success, partly because of the thin plot.  Although Rossini is reputed to have hummed tunes from the work, it is not surprising, as with most eighteenth-century operas, that it disappeared from the stage in the new century. 

Jeremy Gray
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Holes in the ground and honey-cakes
Jeremy Gray

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Holes in the ground and honey-cakes

The curious legend of Trophonios is recounted with intriguing variations and discrepancies across several classical sources, from Herodotus to Pausanius.  Although some accounts call him mortal and a hero, a son of King Erginus of Orchomenus, he seems to have existed also on the fringes of divinity, a possible son of Apollo.  Apollo’s Temple at Delphi was reputed to have been built by him and his brother, but this act of piety did not prevent Trophonios being swallowed up by the earth as punishment for theft from the Treasury of Hyrieus.

Pausanius in his Description of Greece gives the fullest account of a temple and oracle of Trophonios at Lebadeia, Boiotia, complete with a statue by Praxiteles. Here there grew up a thriving oracular cult, associated with a deep fissure in the earth, the hidden whereabouts of which having been originally revealed by a flight of bees.  Consultation of Trofonio’s oracle was not for the feint-hearted.  Ritual river bathing and multiple sacrifices, especially of rams, constituted a lengthy preparation.  Before the descent the pious but determined enquirer, dressed in a white linen tunic, needed to drink the water of Lethe (for forgetfulness of the past) and water of Mnemosyne (for future memory of the oracle).   Descent into the chasm was no easy matter, although a narrow ladder was allowed in the underground vestibule – Pausanius suggests that the entry was very tight and one effectively squeezed and then possibly fell in, but it was important to hold on to an offering of honey-cakes to appease the serpents who were likely to assail one during the descent.  Ascent might be by the same opening (but emerging feet first) or through another opening some way off.  Since the enquirer was likely to be paralysed by fear, recording the outcome of the oracle was a delicate matter, but it was obligatory to record it in full on a tablet to be preserved at the sanctuary.  In writing his libretto, Casti was likely to have been thinking of the Life of Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus: Apollonius, a prophet and philosopher declared “I wish to descend into the cave in the interests of philosophy”.  His consultation lasted longer than any other, a full seven days, and he emerged some way distant in Aulis (perhaps the origin of the story of the grotto with two entrances), clutching a volume of the tenets of Pythagoras.

Jeremy Gray
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