Philemon and Baucis

Gluck

Information

Philemon and Baucis

The Deanery garden, Bampton: 22, 23 July 2016
Westonbirt Orangery: 29 August 2016
St John's Smith Square: 13 September 2016

Cast

Philemon Catherine Backhouse
Baucis Barbara Cole Walton
Jupiter Christopher Turner
A shepherdess Aoife O'Sullivan
  Robert Anthony Gardiner
  Robert Gildon


The Orchestra of Bampton Classical Opera (Bampton, Westonbirt)
CHROMA (London)

Repetiteur Harry Sever                              
Movement director Triona Adams
Conductor Paul Wingfield
Director Jeremy Gray

 

Synopsis

Philemon and Baucis lead a simple and contented pastoral life in the land of Phrygia, utterly devoted to each other and eagerly anticipating their marriage.  It is typical of their good nature that they show unconditional hospitality to an unkempt stranger who arrives from Crete, angry at the rude treatment he has received elsewhere in the community.  Their charity is opportune, since the stranger soon reveals himself to be the god Jupiter.  He blesses their marriage and conjures up a temple.  His simmering resentment nevertheless boils over and petulantly he whips up a devastating storm.  Philemon and Baucis pray for the safety of all, and Jupiter is appeased.   He promises a long and tranquil life to the couple as guardians of his temple and as models of virtue for the good of all.

Synopsis in detail

The mood of the Overture moves quickly from calm relaxation to energetic vitality and suggests the drama ahead.  A lyrical Andante Duet, with warbling flute, introduces the simple pastoral contentment of Baucis and her beloved Philemon: See, my love, how well it pleases: sweetest music, gentle breezes. Their flirting is rudely interrupted by a scruffy stranger, who is angry at the lack of civility shown to him since his recent arrival in Phrygia: These miserable people have no understanding of their obligations as human beings.  Philemon and Baucis are quick to show him their characteristic generosity and Jupiter’s bluster and anger subside.  In a lilting Aria accompanied by strings, Philemon returns to his favourite pastime, the praise of his sweetheart, acknowledging the divine blessings they receive as a couple: This flame of my affection surges before your beauty.  The stranger offers Baucis an enchanted ‘gift of music’, and Philemon leads him away to recover from the rigours of his journey. 

Baucis muses on the stranger’s generosity, and wants to offer thanks to Jupiter, but her prayer is quickly transformed into a passionate hymn to her lover: her brilliant Aria, You are my shepherd and lover – your name, your mien astound me is richly accompanied by oboes and horns, and her amorous excitement is expressed in a coloratura line of ever-rising pitch and elaboration.  The couple’s love is celebrated in an elegant Chorus and Dance accompanied by pizzicato strings: The faithful love of the fairest of creatures inspires and teaches us how to be one.  

Contented with the goodwill of the community, the couple prepare to leave for their wedding, but the stranger suddenly returns and reveals himself as Jupiter.  He reassures them of his favour and promises to create a new temple: he himself will be the priest for their wedding.  In a surprisingly Anglican-sounding Chorus Love divine, all loves excelling  everyone wisely implores Jupiter to remain with them for ever.

Bassoons and lower strings lend a particular colour to Jupiter’s reassuring Aria: My affection and godly devotion will require no ritual treasure.  Philemon and Baucis are overwhelmed by such divine favour and in a serene canonic Duet With this ring I pledge before you, with my body I thee cherish, they are married; the music rises in excitement and runs into a short Chorus: Celebration and elation, there’s no happier couple now.

But Jupiter now spoils the party:  his resentment against his earlier poor reception has been festering, and breaks out in a jagged and syncopated Aria, I burn with righteous fury, anger is rising within me.  For I am judge and jury, their actions I abhor.  The insistence of the music becomes more powerful [Treacherous storms and lightning, crashes of fiery thunder] until the storm breaks in a cataclysmic ‘Tempesta con fulmini’, causing Philemon and Baucis to cry out in terror against the full orchestra, Jupiter, we repent! Would you oppress the humblest of mortals who do lament?  Fortunately Jupiter is easily appeased (or was he merely showing off?) and the skies lighten and the raindrops gradually fade: An example to all, goodness and virtue, I can do nothing to hurt you!

Other than a few soaked skins, all is well.  Jupiter explains his purpose for the couple – they are to be custodians of his temple, and to live with the demigods: more importantly their example of godly virtue will inspire the people to love one another.
Jupiter prepares to depart but reminds them that, if great cares beset thee, I’ll be watching from heaven: do not forget me!  The opera ends joyfully with a short and magnificent choral Hymn: Praise to Jove! Ye heav’ns adore him, praise him, cupids, in the height!
 

Reviews

...as delightful and diversely entertaining as eighteenth-century opera, in its more modest guises, was always intended to be.
TLS, 29 July 2016

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...as delightful and diversely entertaining as eighteenth-century opera, in its more modest guises, was always intended to be.

TLS, 29 July 2016

Berlioz kept Gluck’s tragic operas in mind when conceiving of the raw emotional power he felt musical theatre should be able to draw on, and Gluck’s reputation as the composer of focused tragic emotion owes a good deal to Berlioz’s championing of him. One often forgets, however, that the majority of Gluck’s operas were often rather slight works that adhered faithfully to eighteenth-century norms.
 
One of these is Philemon and Baucis, written to celebrate the wedding of the young Duke Ferdinand in 1769. It’s a light but skilfully rendered pastoral based on Ovid’s tale of how a married couple’s faithful love and acceptance of their modest fate finds approval and reward from Jupiter. Gluck’s touch is gentle save for Baucis’s aria in praise of her husband, in which the flighty coloratura of the soprano part is set in relief by some fearsome string writing, backed up with oboes and horns and whose representation of composed femininity unravelling itself in a whirlwind of passion rather prefigures Béatrice’s “Il m’en souvient”.
 
Ovid’s lovers turn into yew trees which, in Swift’s poem on the subject, find themselves flourishing in an English country churchyard. Gluck’s rarely heard pastoral is performed among the flourishing yews of the garden of Bampton Deanery, with Swift’s avian name- sakes darting and diving around. If that sounds idyllic it’s because Bampton Classical Opera, founded in 1993 for the performance of rarely-heard eighteenth-century operas, remains both as true to its small-scale ambitions and as delightful as country opera can be.
 
Baucis and its partner piece, Arne’s masque setting of Congreve’s libretto, The Judgement of Paris (in the Musica Britannica edition with reconstructions by the late Ian Spink), are here updated to the environs of a budget airline (“Arne Air”) by the company’s co-founder Jeremy Gray. It works well enough for the Gluck, even better for the Arne, where the three goddesses are cabin crew. Pallas is dressed in Virgin red while Venus’s suit to win the golden apple (a limited edition iPod) is secured with a protracted visit to the mile-high club.
 
With some fine singing and exemplary comic acting by the soloists (notably Barbara Cole Walton’s Baucis/Juno, Aoife O’Sullivan’s Venus and Christopher Turner’s winning Jupiter/Paris), and sensitive, unfussy accompaniment from a scratch band, under the unflappable guiding baton of Paul Wingfield, the evening is as delightful and diversely entertaining as eighteenth-century opera, in its more modest guises, was always intended to be.
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Guy Dammann

 

...harmonious combination of nature and artifice.
Classical Source, July 2016

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...harmonious combination of nature and artifice.

Classical Source, July 2016

Operating in the delightful setting of a private garden in Oxfordshire, Bampton Classical Opera mounted this programme of “Divine Comedies”, producing two charming stage-works which concern the disruptive intervention of the classical deities in the affairs of mortals.
 
Jeremy Gray’s production perhaps took inspiration by looking above to the open skies – and perhaps to nearby RAF Brize Norton – by setting both pieces in the context of an airport or aeroplane. In doing so that concept of travel into and out of the heavens surely also made them more intelligible regarding the metaphysics of mythology with its fantastical theophanies.
 
In Gluck’s Philemon and Baucis (with this believed to be its first staging anywhere since its premiere in Parma in 1769, composed to an Italian libretto as part of the festivities for the wedding of Duke Ferdinand of Parma and Archduchess Maria Amalia) Jupiter appears disguised as a traveller, albeit an uncouth 21st-century jet-setter, and the happy pair of named lovers are workers in the airport at which Jupiter lands. Christopher Turner sang that part with good humour and swagger, boisterous but not bluff, and maintained a sense of the character’s latent authority, which is eventually revealed such that he presides over the lovers’ wedding with Catherine Backhouse and Barbara Cole Walton, the former singing with unaffected charm and the latter demonstrating extraordinary control and agility in the taxing coloratura of her aria (comparable to the music Mozart provided for Aloysia Weber in ‘Popoli di Tessaglia’, though in her cadenza Cole Walton parodied the Queen of the Night’s aria!).
 
This production and Peter Jones’s edition bore amusing references to the immediate surroundings of its performance making it an even more appealing prospect than it would otherwise have been. Jupiter made ironic allusions to the things which cause most anxiety to summer-opera audiences – the weather and the provision of champagne. When Jupiter reveals himself and promises to create a temple, he gestured towards Bampton’s church, visible beyond the gardens, and an Anglican context was ingeniously suggested for the wedding by applying the words of Charles Wesley’s great hymn ‘Love divine, all loves excelling’ (with scarcely any modifications) to the chorus which Gluck composed at this point. The theology of those words fitted remarkably well the dramatic device of Jupiter’s appearance on Earth.
 
Gray takes the audience back up into the air for Thomas Arne’s Judgment of Paris, first by drawing a common thread with the Gluck and establishing an airport setting by having an actor perform a wry little sequence as an air-traffic controller during the Overture. Mercury becomes an official in the security check, and Paris is a passenger who is required to choose between the on-board hostesses, Juno, Pallas Athena, and Venus.
 
Admittedly Paris is a Masque, rather than a fully-fledged Opera, but it was realised with less dramatic imagination and panache than the Gluck. Nevertheless the three lead females were distinctively characterised, in their differently-coloured uniforms, by Cole Walton, Backhouse, and Aoife O’Sullivan. Where Cole Walton was haughty and Backhouse imperious, O’Sullivan (who eventually wins Paris’s affections) combined something of both of those qualities with a requisite strain of sensuous, even lascivious, charm. That versatility made it convincing that the feckless Paris would choose beguiling beauty above anything else. Turner again showed much musical charisma in that part, as did Robert Anthony Gardiner as Mercury, even if he was insecure in the upper range of his singing.
 
Fewer than two-dozen members in the Orchestra provided a lean accompaniment to the action under Paul Wingfield’s conducting, though with an often-prominent continuo sometimes close to unbalancing the texture. But otherwise they brought a due sense of vigour and purpose to the two scores, even in the odd number which felt too long (a fault of the composers).
 
Summer-opera performances may abound, but Bampton rings the changes on account of its effective and witty adaptation of some rare repertoire, performed al fresco in a setting which mankind could hardly contrive to make a more harmonious combination of nature and artifice.
 
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Curtis Rogers

 

... a typically imaginative production... another triumph for Bampton Classical Opera
Seen and Heard International, July 2016

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... a typically imaginative production... another triumph for Bampton Classical Opera

Seen and Heard International, July 2016

In 1769 Duke Ferdinand, Louis XV’s grandson, married Maria Amalia, Marie Antoinette’s sister, and the event was celebrated in grand style in Parma with a four-part entertainment by Gluck entitled Le feste d’Apollo, of which L’atto di Bauci e Filemone was a part.  Nowadays the happy bridal couple would doubtless be members of the international jet set, so it was appropriate that for its first staging since 1769 the opera should be set in an airport terminal in Phrygia, with Philemon at the immigration desk and his fiancée Baucis dispensing refreshments.
 
Among the throng of arriving passengers and tourists is a dishevelled and disgruntled Jupiter who is not very godlike in appearance having travelled in economy class and been denied his usual glass of champagne. However, the airport staff rally around offering him tea and chocolate biscuits and he soon settles down. In gratitude he offers the couple money and “an enchanted gift of music” – his guitar.  As the god recovers from his journey Baucis praises her lover with a brilliant coloratura aria of ever-rising pitch and elaboration “You are my shepherd and my lover”. I am not sure whether Barbara Cole Walton has a range of three and a half octaves like the soprano Lucrezia Aguiara who sang the role in the original production, but she certainly hit all the top notes with ease.
 
The couple’s love is celebrated with a chorus and dance, after which Jupiter reappears in all his splendour – crown and cloak – to reveal his true identity, and offers to perform the wedding ceremony for Philemon and Baucis at no cost. “My affection and devotion will require no ritual treasure,” he sings. Hymn books are passed around and the cast sing “Love divine, all loves excelling” in good Anglican style. After the ceremony there is much rejoicing, but Jupiter has one of his bad turns again recalling his poor treatment on the plane with “I burn with righteous fury”. He calls forth a cataclysmic storm with thunder and lightning, which terrifies everybody. Eventually he calms down and before leaving appoints Philemon and Baucis custodians of his temple to general rejoicing.
 
The plot may be slight but there is plenty of good music to enjoy, including the turbulent storm scene where everyone dons plastic macs and puts up umbrellas, the pizzicato dance music, where the passengers partner their luggage and some really expressive arias. As Jupiter Christopher Turner is a real hoot, and there is fine singing from the two sweethearts. A lively supporting cast and fine playing from the orchestra under Paul Wingfield’s direction were the icing on the cake.
 
We had a further opportunity to appreciate the orchestra’s musicianship in the lengthy overture to Arne’s The Judgement of Paris. This is by no means the only version of this opera: back in 1700 Lord Halifax launched a competition for composers to set a specially written piece by Congreve – the winner being John Weldon. Whether or not Dr Arne was aware of this competition is uncertain, but he certainly knew of Giuseppe Sammartini’s version when he made his own attempt. Incidentally, Bampton Classical Opera did a semi-staged performance of this at Oxford’s Holywell Music Rooms in November 2010 to coincide with Arne’s 300th anniversary.
 
Christopher Turner is demoted in this second opera to the status of a mere mortal – Paris, a shepherd. The divine is represented by Mercury, the winged messenger of the gods, whose day job is as a pilot for Arne Air (“the low-cost airline – no frills, plenty of trills”). Mercury, sung by the distinguished-looking Robert Anthony Gardner, tasks Paris with judging the most famous beauty contest in the whole of literature, much to the shepherd’s consternation.
 
The contest takes place aboard a plane – clearly in the first class section since Paris is the only passenger and is doted on by three air hostesses – who are also contestants in the beauty competition. They seek to engage their passenger’s attention in the manner they enact the airline’s safety instructions and drills singing “Hither turn thee, gentle swain”. Jupiter’s wife Juno (Barbara Cole Walton) in a navy blue stewardess’s uniform assures Paris that he is born to be a ruler. Then Pallas Athena in red takes over with a barnstorming “The glorious voice of war calls aloud” from Catherine Backhouse, whose martial tones cause turbulence and an aircraft emergency. Her performance appears to have had a wider audience than expected for two bombers flew low over Bampton soon after, just as Venus was singing a seductive aria to Paris! It is Venus who entices Paris into the aircraft’s toilet. And one can only speculate as to what happens behind the closed doors for Paris emerges with a frantic “I yield, I yield, O take the prize”. The prize? An Apple iPhone, of course.
This was a typically imaginative production by Jeremy Gray who for 24 seasons has uncovered forgotten operas and breathed new life into them. This time, despite Jupiter’s rantings, the weather was perfect for the two operas performed in the open air; and it is difficult to think of a pleasanter (or jollier) way of spending a summer evening. This was another triumph for Bampton Classical Opera.
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Roger Jones

 

...well worth seeing
Bachtrack, July 2016

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...well worth seeing

Bachtrack, July 2016

Since 1993, Bampton Classical Opera has been resurrecting early operatic works from obscurity and mounting them in imaginative new productions in the gardens of the local church. This year’s presentation of unfamiliar one-acters by Gluck and Arne is typical Bampton fare, and provides excellent opportunities for emerging young singers. The deanery garden of St Mary’s Church is an ideal setting for these intellectually untaxing works; and when the gods of summer music festivals are smiling and balmy skies are granted, the chief worry becomes that the performance itself may seem no more than an agreeable side dish, to go with the wine and canapés brought along by picnicking audience members.
 
Another worry is the works themselves. Although they deal variously with love, fidelity and compassion, these weighty themes are here given a light, even playful touch: a wrathful god becomes a mildly stroppy tourist, the disorienting power of physical attraction descends into an overawed grope in a cubicle. Even an orchestral storm is no more than a benign parade of pretty notes and arpeggios. From the first note of Gluck’s overture to Philemon and Baucis – composed as part of the celebrations of the (ultimately unhappy) marriage of an Austrian Archduchess to an Parmese Duke – it is clear we are in a benevolent universe, where quarrels are quickly resolved and happy endings assured. But can pleasant music and committed acting/singing suffice, in the absence of true dramatic tension?
 
That both works retain and reward attention is a tribute to director Jeremy Gray, who has updated and relocated the action to a present day airport, exploiting a loosely shared theme of travel. A more pertinent connection is the god Jupiter, whose protean moods motor the action of each piece. In Philemon and Baucis, the god is physically present, at first in the mortal disguise of a disembarking passenger after a bad flight, whose generalised contempt for humanity is mitigated, then overcome through his encounter with the pair of titular lovers. Christopher Turner – a natural buffo performer, possessed with an authoritative tenor – gave a marvellously engaging turn as the capricious god, whose anger is merely a front for his basically sunny nature. Turner’s splendidly articulated recitative established the god’s character from the outset and his confident stage presence mark him out as a natural singer/actor. As the lovers, Catherine Backhouse and Barbara Cole Walton were nicely contrasted and if Walton’s security during her lengthy (and often gravity-defying) central aria was intermittent, her energy and commitment never flagged. A word too for Gilly French’s accomplished adaptation of the libretto, which pulled off the difficult feat of mixing the classical with the contemporary, so that even a couple of scene-setting anachronisms (Jupiter is asked if he would like “a cup of tea… and a chocolate biscuit” after his dreadful flight) didn’t jar.
 
This was the British première of Gluck's opera, after a mere 247 years; but Arne’s The Judgment of Paris is possibly even more of an obscurity. William Congreve's libretto, written as his (losing) entry in a 1701 competition funded by wealthy English opera enthusiasts, preceded Arne's music by 41 years. The aim of the competition was to promote English opera and to do something about the parlous state into which it had fallen. It failed on both counts but Arne’s opera survives as a mildly engaging curio.
 
Although absent, Jupiter’s wishes are here conveyed by his messenger Mercury (Robert Anthony Gardiner) who in this staging adopts the persona of the airport baggage-handler: he requests the ‘shepherd’ Paris (Turner once again, this time as a passenger on a long haul flight) to award a golden apple to one of three beautiful goddesses – Juno, Pallas Athena and Venus – who are here ‘translated’ into three beautiful air hostesses. What follows is a beauty contest in which the ultimate victor is signposted from the start: Aoife O’Sullivan’s seductively sung Venus was suitably overwhelming, but the production couldn’t entirely disguise the thinness of the material.
 
Presiding in the pit, or covered tent at a right angle to the stage, Paul Wingfield kept both scores moving with relaxed confidence, and both orchestra and singers coped well in the face of some overheard interruptions courtesy of RAF Brize Norton. If there was an occasional loss of clarity from some of the singers, this was easily excused. Bampton Classical Opera is taking these productions to locations in Gloucestershire and London later in the summer and both are well worth seeing.
 
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Richard Ely

 

Magnificent bill of divine comedy
Oxford Times, August 2016

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Magnificent bill of divine comedy

Oxford Times, August 2016

Bampton Opera set the bar exceptionally high last year with its acclaimed production of Salieri’s La Grotta di Trofonio and gave itself a hard act to follow. But how magnificently the company rose to the challenge this year with a delightful double bill of ‘divine comedies’.
 
Once again, company founders and co-directors Jeremy Gray and Gilly French have breathed fresh life into long-forgotten 18th century gems with new translations and their customary sense of fun and mischief.
 
The company has already experimented with concert versions of Arne’s The Judgement of Paris but here the opera was given the full stage treatment, alongside Gluck’s Philemon and Baucis.
 
Both operas have undemanding and rather daft plots, but on an unusually balmy summer’s evening in the famous Deanery garden, all that really mattered was their lush scores and the fact that Jeremy Gray’s audacious updating of these mythological tales to a modern airport setting gave the pieces some humour and substance – both gleefully seized upon by the cast who, like the audience, were clearly having a ball.
 
Tenor Christopher Turner was new to the company last year and has proved a valuable asset with his exceptionally fine singing, articulate phrasing and natural feel for comedy. His performances as Jupiter in Philemon and Baucis and the eponymous shepherd in The Judgement of Paris were arguably the most outstanding of the evening, but I also loved Aoife O’Sullivan’s very seductive Venus in the Arne piece, while Barbara Cole Walton was delightful as young lover Baucis in the Gluck piece, not only hitting the fiendish top Gs with aplomb but making them seem ridiculously easy. As her suitor Philemon, Catherine Backhouse’s rich mezzo was a nice contrast.
 
An additional pleasure for me was being seated close to the orchestra, which produced some exquisite sounds under the confident baton of Paul Wingfield.
 
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Nicola Lisle

 

A treat of a performance... pure delight throughout
Opera Now, September 2016

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A treat of a performance... pure delight throughout

Opera Now, September 2016

Bampton Classical Opera well deserves its unique reputation among English opera companies, for its focus on rare, often wholly neglected Classical (or late-Baroque) repertoire; for Gilly French’s vivid, cleverly rhymed translations; for a beguiling sense of the bizarre demonstrated in Jeremy Gray’s staging, set and costumes, an enchanted, hedged garden setting with surprisingly helpful acoustics; a programme book packed with information and sound scholarship; a well-rehearsed vocal ensemble with buoyant, entertaining leads; and a vital sense of pacing which captures the feeling of energy, sense of fun, and unpredictable moods essential to making this unusual fare as accessible to an audience as the common-or-garden mainstream.
 
Bampton’s latest offering, a comic double-bill of one-act operas by Gluck and Arne, each featured a tongue-in-cheek reading of Greek myth.  Gluck is one of Bampton’s specialities, and Philemon and Baucis, a vivacious score capitally well captured by conductor Paul Wingfield, approaches in quality the composer’s own Orfeo.  The arias – for Catherine Backhouse’s beautifully-sung Philemon, and Barbara Cole Walton’s coloratura-tinged Baucis – were ravishingly lyrical, and the amusing, bumbling Jupiter, their unexpected guest (the very agreeable tenor Christopher Turner) whose shifting moods – benevolence fused with childish fury at not being, in various disguises, amenably treated – was a treat of a performance.
 
Turner gets the plum role in Arne’s The Judgment of Paris, playing the Trojan Prince who must choose from three suitable luscious goddesses-cum-air hostesses.  While the Gluck score is sumptuous, Arne’s is arguably even more appealing, and Gray’s slightly less hectically zany production here opened the door for a consistent reading and pleasingly lucid offering, in which Aoife O’Sullivan’s exquisite solos as Venus (‘Stay, lovely youth’; ‘Nature framed thee sure for loving’) predictably stole the thunder of her hopeful but unsuccessful female rivals.  An unexpected treat was Mercury’s light, dancy introduction, in which mellifluous tenor Robert Anthony Gardiner, a notable Jette Parker alumnus, all but upstaged the girls.  Top-rate Arne, and pure delight throughout.
 
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Roderic Dunnett

 

... refreshing and rewarding
Opera, September 2016

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... refreshing and rewarding

Opera, September 2016

It might seem risky staging an opera with a significant storm aria in a garden at the height of an English summer, and asking for trouble to set that opera in an airport arrivals terminal when RAF Brize Norton lies just a couple of kilometres to the north.  But the sun shone over Bampton Classical Opera’s double bill of ‘divine comedies’ and a low-level flypast added to the ironic wit of the production.
 
As a long-term employee of the Habsburgs, Gluck was required to devise entertainments for festive occasions, and Philemon and Baucis formed part of the extensive celebrations for the wedding of Ferdinand, Duke of Parma, and Maria Amalia, Archduchess of Austria in 1769.  It tells the story of a shepherd and shepherdess who show great respect and care for Jupiter when he appears before them disguised as a pilgrim.  In return, they are blessed by him with everlasting life and elevated to the status of demigods.
 
Shepherd and shepherdesses being in short supply these days, in Jeremy Gray’s production Jupiter was greeted at Phrygia airport’s immigration desk by Philemon (Catherine Backhouse) while Baucis (Barbara Cole Walton) cleaned up tourists’ debris.  Weighed down by his guitar, irritated by disrespectful fellow passengers and disgruntled that Arne Airways (‘the low-cost airline – no frills, plenty of trills!’) hadn’t upgraded him from economy, the grungy Jupiter (Christopher Turner) was eventually placated by the dulcet duetting of Backhouse and Cole Walton – and tea and biscuits.  Backhouses’s rich-toned mezzo blended well with the charming brightness of Cole Walton’s soprano, and the latter was stunning in her bravura coloratura aria, ‘You are my shepherd and lover’ (translation by Gilly French), which climbed higher and higher as if in search of a peak that would do justice to the intensity of her passion.  I don’t know what pitch Cole Walton reached but she walked the stratospheric tightrope with astonishing ease.
 
Determined to officiate at the forthcoming nuptials, Jupiter revealed his true identity, donned a gold cloak and turned the multi-faith chapel into a ‘Templvm’.  But the god’s good humour didn’t last long and Turner’s powerful aria di furia triggered a thunderous storm-sequence.  Vigorous fanning and a fire-extinguisher eventually quelled Jupiter’s anger and as the tempest subsided the wedding guests ditched their brollies and pac-a-macs, and held a giant-Toblerone arch over the nuptial pair.
 
Turner found himself downgraded to mortality in Thomas Arne’s The Judgment of Paris and commanded by Robert Anthony Gardiner’s authoritative Mercury – an Arne Air pilot – to serve as adjudicator of the divinities’ beauty contest and award a golden ‘apple’ to the victor.  First performed in London in 1742, the masque was previously semi-staged by Bampton in 2010, and it formed a good companion piece to Gluck’s opera, taking us from the terminus to the aeroplane as Paris battled his way through security red-tape to enter heavenly realms.  The airline safety instruction routine provided the three celestial air hostesses with an opportunity to catch their VIP passenger’s eye before each in turn displayed their vocal prowess.  Following Cole Walton’s vivacious declaration of her pre-eminence as Juno, wife of Jupiter, the red-uniformed Pallas Athena (Backhouse) launched into a vigorous martial air, ‘The glorious voice of war calls’, which triggered stormy turbulence.  The crew dragged down oxygen masks, Paris clutched a sick-bag while the Mechanic (Robert Gildon) guided the plane through the hurly-burley – but Pallas sang on.  Backhouse’s vocal antics might have presumed to have triumphed but Aoife O’Sullivan’s Venus had other ideas: her suave aria lured Paris into the aircraft toilet and when she emerged she was clutching her prize – an iPhone.
 
The orchestra, conducted by Paul Wingfield, captured both the charming simplicity of these two scores and their expressive details – Gluck’s pizzicato dance, the elegant cello obbligato of Venus’s conquering ‘Gentle swain! Hither turn thee’.
 
Once again, Bampton Classical Opera showed real commitment to these little-known works, confirming that with invention and sincerity much can be made from fairly small musical and material beginnings.  These two productions combined sweet romance and comic capers with a healthy dose or irreverent Classicism: the results were refreshing and rewarding.
 
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Claire Seymour

 

...an ear for young voices
The Times, 14 September 2016

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...an ear for young voices

The Times, 14 September 2016

In the early 1990s Jeremy Gray and Gilly French formed a company to perform 18th-century operas in their Oxfordshire village. Two dozen masques, serenatas and singspiels later, Bampton Classical Opera is thriving on a diet of pretty rarities and footnote works.
 
Shades of Scooch’s ill-fated 2007 Eurovision entry, Flying the Flag (For You), idled in a holding pattern over Gray’s thrifty double bill of Philemon and Baucis and The Judgment of Paris. Plastic walls, modular seating, an interfaith chapel and an advertisement for Arne Air (“No frills/Plenty of trills”) placed Gluck’s 1769 opera in a budget airline lounge.
Jupiter (Christopher Turner) was flying incognito, disguised as a backpacker. Philemon (Catherine Backhouse) was a passport control officer, and his beloved Baucis (Barbara Cole Walton) a cleaner. The rest of the company, including the scene-stealing Niamh Adams as a sulky tweenager, doubled as tourists and security staff.
 
French’s English translation mixes Georgian versification — including a chunk of Wesley — with cosy quips about duty-free. The score, played with ramshackle vivacity by Chroma under Paul Wingfield, is lemon-sweet; cushioned by pizzicato strings and giddy flutes, and gilded with stratospheric coloratura for Cole Walton’s helium-high soprano.
 
Backhouse’s cherry-bright mezzo showed immense promise, while Turner displayed a firm, juicy, stylish tenor in Jupiter’s tantrums and, later, in Paris’s O Ravishing Delight. Arne’s 1740 comedy of female vanity and male stupidity played out on a bumpy flight, with Venus (Aoife O’Sullivan), Juno (Cole Walton) and Pallas (Backhouse) as stewardesses, the last in Virgin red (ha ha). The golden apple was an iPod (ho ho).
 
O’Sullivan’s pregnant goddess smooched and smouldered irresistibly over a delicate cello obbligato in Hither turn thee, gentle Swain, claiming her prize of a knee-trembler with Paris in the loo. Production values are low, but Bampton understands the British sense of humour, and Gray and French have an ear for young voices.
 
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Anna Picard

 

Rare operas given the knockabout comedy treatment
Evening Standard, 14 September 2016

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Rare operas given the knockabout comedy treatment

Evening Standard, 14 September 2016

To say that Gluck’s Philemon and Baucis (dating from 1769) and Thomas Arne’s The Judgement of Paris (1742) are rare would be a gross understatement. Both operas last less than an hour, both relate an allegory from classical culture that would have made sense to an 18th-century audience but which barely resonates today. 
 
Opting to present them as knockabout comedy, and using more or less the same set for each, Jeremy Gray’s production for Bampton Classical Opera located the Gluck in an airport terminal and the Arne on a budget airline flight.
 
The young, fresh voiced cast coped equally well with the taxing vocal lines and the broad humour, which centred on the incongruity of doing mundane modern things – stamping passports, duty-free shopping – while telling ancient stories about gods and mortals. 
The star of the show was Christopher Turner, as an alternately wrathful and beneficent Jupiter in Gluck, and as Paris in the Arne, his golden apple a gilded iPod (Apple: geddit?).
 
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Nick Kimberley

 

... a healthy dose of insouciance
Opera Today, 15 September 2016

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... a healthy dose of insouciance

Opera Today, 15 September 2016

Bampton Classical Opera’s 2016 double-bill ‘touched down’ at St John’s Smith Square last night, following performances in The Deanery Garden at Bampton and The Orangery of Westonbirt School earlier this summer.
 
With characteristic ingenuity and wit, the company presented two little-known but musically rewarding operas, each under an hour in length, in which meetings between mortals and deities give rise to conflict and confusion but conclude, inevitably, with Love triumphant. Bampton director Jeremy Gray has treated these classical allegories with a healthy dose of insouciance. And, with so much to-ing and fro-ing between earthly and celestial realms, where better to set the action than a terrestrial portal - an airport arrivals lounge - and an airplane in transit to the heavens. At Bampton in July, RAF Brize Norton had contributed some all too realistic supplementary sound effects, but we were safe from unscheduled flypasts inside St John’s and the Corinthian columns of the nave provided an appropriately classical ambience.
 
Gluck composed Philémon e Baucis in 1769 for the extended festivities which accompanied the marriage of his long-term Hapsburg employer Ferdinand, Duke of Parma (who was the grandson of Louis XV of France) and Maria Amalia, Archduchess of Austria, the sister of Marie Antoinette. The myth tells of two young lovers, the eponymous shepherd and shepherdess, who show great respect and care for the god Jupiter when he appears before them disguised as a pilgrim. In return, the rustic couple are blessed by Jupiter with everlasting life and elevated to the status of demigods. At the same time, he curses their fellow Phrygians who had refused to help him.
 
In Gray’s neat and natty production, Philemon (mezzo Catherine Backhouse) and Baucis (soprano Barbara Cole Walton) have cast aside their shepherds’ smocks and crooks for an immigration officer’s uniform and cleaner’s mop respectively. Last through customs is a scruffy, irascible Jupiter (tenor Christopher Turner) who wastes no time in making clear his displeasure at having to travel in economy, and his disgruntlement with the failure of Arne Airways (‘the low-cost airline - no frills, plenty of trills!’) to offer him some complementary champagne.
 
Fortunately, the musical musings of the two lovers are sufficiently dulcet to sweeten the tetchy deity’s mood - he is even inspired by Philemon’s melodious strain to take up his guitar and strum a gentle accompaniment - and tea and biscuits prove an effective substitute for Dom Perignon.
 
Backhouse’s mezzo was rich and vibrant, full of character and expressively phrased. It’s a lovely clean sound and blended perfectly with Cole Walton’s crystalline soprano in the roulades of thirds and sixths which spun deliciously in their duets. Both singers acted well: their joyful smiles and affectionate teasing conveyed an innocent wonder that they had been so lucky in love. And, Cole Walton wowed in her florid coloratura aria, ‘You are my shepherd and lover’, by climbing to heights which I had thought were beyond the reach of human voice (top G?). She leapt and glided into dog whistle territory without the slightest hint of strain, as if propelled ever higher by infinite ardour and delight; the intonation was spot on and the tone pleasing as she slithered and curled back down again. Stunning!
 
Christopher Turner was fittingly snappish and petulant as the peeved god, but puffed up proudly with gilded self-importance when revealing his true identity to the lesser mortals. Turner’s tenor is a versatile instrument and his diction was excellent (though we were, helpfully, given a copy of Gilly French’s pithy translation).
 
Bampton’s trademark visual gags and irony were present in abundance. An air-traffic controller in high-vis vest semaphored the plane across the runway to the overture’s perky rhythms. A sign warned against sleeping in the multi-faith chapel before the latter was transformed by Jupiter into a ‘Templvm’; giant Toblerones grabbed from the duty-free shop by the returning travellers’ chorus (soprano Aoife O’Sullivan, tenor Robert Anthony Gardiner and baritone Robert Gildon) formed a perfect nuptial arch to frame the married couple. Turner’s impressively authoritative aria di furia prompted a clamorous storm sequence and both raging god and thunder were calmed only after extensive, robust fanning, umbrella twirling and a cooling spray from a fire-extinguisher. There was some minor ‘funny business’ and mime during the instrumental episodes which did not feel entirely natural or necessary, but I suppose there was a need to invent ‘activity’ to keep the visual drama running.
 
Thomas Arne’s The Judgment of Paris, which Bampton first performed during the 2010-11 season was first performed in London on 12 March 1742, and it has been suggested that it may have been intended to upstage Sammartini, the protégé of Frederick the Prince of Wales, for the Italian’s own The Judgment of Paris had been performed at Cliveden in 1740 alongside Arne’s masque, Alfred.
 
William Congreve’s droll libretto relates the episode in which Paris, a shepherd, is obliged to choose the fairest among the three goddesses, Juno, Pallas and Venus. During the competition, Paris finds himself the subject of various enticements as the goddesses attempt to persuade him in turn to award them the symbol of victory, a golden apple. Far from displaying bucolic gaucheness, Paris demonstrates unanticipated wile in delaying his judgement for long enough to incite the impatient goddess into singing several arias and engaging in a degree of disrobing. Just how is a director to treat Paris’s line, ‘When each is undrest, I’ll judge of the best’?
 
Demoted from omniscience to mortality, Turner again impressed as the vacillating protagonist who - clearly a flying-phobic - was escorted through security by a smooth-voiced Mercury (Robert Anthony Gardiner), an Arne Air pilot, and charged with the task of deciding which of the three air hostesses deserved the prize - a golden i-Apple. The cast relished the easy melodiousness of Arne’s vocal lines and at St John’s I was able to appreciate even more than in the open-air acoustic at Bampton the instrumental invention evident in the accompaniments, which are often quite light in texture and make beguiling use of obliggato instruments. There was some fine playing by the members of CHROMA, by turns animated and expressive, always lucid. Paul Wingfield conducted with alertness and sensitivity - all the more impressive given that he couldn’t actually see his singers.
 
Soprano Aoife O’Sullivan was excellent as the lewd and lustful Venus. The fact that O’Sullivan is seven-months pregnant added a further dash of drollery; and it perhaps wasn’t fanciful to imagine that the hormones also furnished her wonderfully glossy soprano with even more shine. O’Sullivan produced an easy, full tone, and the high-lying lines were attractive of tone and purposefully shaped. When Venus’s charming aria, ‘Stay, lovely Youth’, enticed the bewildered Paris into the passenger toilet, the rival hostesses knew all was lost.
 
Movement director Triona Adams and Gray have crafted some waggish and witty routines. Who knew that aircraft safety paraphernalia - seat-belts, whistles, life jackets and the like - had such erotic potential? Paris’s air-sickness during the storm whipped up by Pallas’s musical call-to-arms suggested that perhaps he wasn’t cut out to be a hero after all.
Staging opera at St John’s Smith Square is a tricky business: audience sight-lines are not good, the acoustic can be unhelpful, and where does one put the orchestra and conductor? (Behind the set, in this case.) This duo of divine comedies was not disadvantaged by the limitations of space and dimension, though; after the charming open-air of the Bampton Deanery Garden, it seemed to me that the more compact stage area actually helped to intensify the focus, particularly of the Gluck which is dramatically rather slight, sharpen the pacing and make for slicker comic capers. The clashing complementaries of the pink/green lighting scheme were also more vivid, set against the sombre, darker interior.
 
The Judgment of Paris ends with the proclamation of Victory: ‘The Queen of Love, is Queen of Beauty crown’d.’ Bampton Classical Opera certainly deserved a laurel crown of their own for this impudent duo of ‘divine comedies’.
 
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Claire Seymour

 

...unquestionably a company triumph
Boulezian, 18 September 2016

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...unquestionably a company triumph

Boulezian, 18 September 2016

We have a great deal for which to be grateful to Bampton Classical Opera, here making its annual staged visit to St John’s, Smith Square. Who else is interested in this country is interested in the broader hinterland of opera in, roughly, the second half of the eighteenth century? Gluck, by any standards, one of the most important composers in the history of opera, not just eighteenth-century opera, is all but ignored by our ‘major’, non-touring companies, although English Touring Opera offered a fine Iphigénie en Tauride earlier this year. (I also plan to report from the new staging in Paris in December.) If ‘reformist’ Gluck is so shamefully ignored, however, his earlier and concurrent ‘non-reformist’ self suffers a fate worse still.
 
And yet, the dividing lines are not nearly so distinct as one might suspect. Filemone e Bauci, here sung in Gilly French’s English translation as Philemon and Baucis, was actually written as one act of a festa teatrale, La feste d’Apollo – not unlike a Ramellian opéra-ballet – whose final act was a revised (shortened) version of Orfeo ed Euridice. Intended for the 1769 wedding of Ferdinand, Duke of Parma, to Maria Theresa’s daughter, Maria Amalia, there was a rich, personal operatic past on which to draw, the Archduchess herself having sung in Viennese performances of two earlier Gluck operas, Il parnaso confuso (performed by Bampton forces in 2014) (as Apollo himself), and La corona. Gluck, moreover, for all the alleged purity of his operatic æsthetic, was far from averse to reusing music elsewhere, and there is some splendidly insane coloratura to be handled here too, no more banished to the dustbin of operatic history than a good number of other aspects of Metastasian opera seria. That La feste d’Apollo immediately followed Alceste – of the celebrated Preface – counsels us against parroting too readily all manner of supposed generalisations, turning points, and so forth, concerning operatic history. That said, whilst Bauci’s one aria offers us coloratura to make the Queen of the Night seem almost an amateur, the rest of Gluck’s style here is relatively simple. As so often, the truth is more interesting, more complicated, than received opinion would have us believe. We might know that in theory, of course, but we also need opportunities to experience that in performance, such as here.
 
 It is not, perhaps, the most dramatic of works, certainly of libretti, but Giuseppe Maria Pagnini’s libretto, after Ovid, makes certain interesting modifications – I hesitate to say ‘metamorphoses’ – and Jeremy Gray’s production follows suit; both offer a setting for Gluck’s opera to shine forth, playing with the distance between antiquity, the eighteenth century and our time. Chez Pagnini, Philemon and Baucis – I shall now use the English forms – are not an elderly couple, but a pair of young lovers. They nevertheless show kindness beyond the call of duty towards the disguised Jupiter, and, following a storm of divine petulance, receive their priestly reward. Picking up on ideas of travel, disguise, and liminality, the action takes place – not didactically, but with an awareness of what a change of scene might do, to make us consider meaning – in the strange, modern world of the airport: not an uninteresting substitution for pastoral Phrygia. There can certainly be no doubting the helpfulness of these particular honest airline employees.
 
That is also the world, with different, yet related, designs for Thomas Arne’s The Judgment of Paris, Arne Air (‘no frills, plenty of trills’) itself – perhaps – a disguised –version of something else. The work is a little earlier than many, though by no means all, of Bampton’s works. To begin with, I even thought that Arne’s 1742 setting of William Congreve’s competition-entry libretto (1701) might have the edge over Gluck’s. It was a splendid opportunity to hear such a rarity, of course, but, as time went on, and with no disrespect to Ian Spink’s excellent Musica Britannica reconstruction of the dry recitatives and chorus music, Arne’s music, superficially similar to Handel’s, became somewhat predictable and perhaps stood in need of the occasional cut to admit of dramatic flow: quite the opposite, then, to Gluck, whose virtues, as so often, quietly crept up upon us. The witty presentation of Paris making his judg(e)ment as a passenger upon divinely-conjured air hostesses again has the virtue of permitting reflection, without forcing it upon us. Jupiter may be absent in person, but his messenger, Mercury again offers another lightly worn connection between works.
 
The playing of CHROMA, under Paul Wingfield, proved excellent throughout. We may have come to expect that, but it is certainly not to be taken for granted. From the typically contrasting material – and its dramatic implications – of Gluck’s Overture to the final Arne chorus we were not only in safe, but colourful, harmonically aware hands, well capable of permitting the operatic action to ‘Sing, and spread the joyful News around’. Barbara Cole Walton proved every inch the star with that fiendish coloratura writing from Gluck. As Arne’s Juno, she took her part in an excellent team of competitors, her Juno complementing and contrasting with Catherine Backhouse’s wise, yet far from un-sensual Pallas, also a rich-toned, good-natured Philemon, and Aoife O’Sullivan’s spirited, highly characterful Venus. Christopher Turner’s Paris (and Jupiter) revealed to us a sensitive, agile tenor: many challenges here, met with formidable success. Robert Anthony Gardiner’s Mercury also impressed, with similar vocal virtues, and a keen sense of the stage. Members of the ensemble all made their mark. This was unquestionably a company triumph; the next Bampton opera(s) is or are eagerly awaited.
 
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Mark Berry

 

...much interest
MusicOMH.com, 15 September 2016

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...much interest

MusicOMH.com, 15 September 2016

Now in its twenty-fourth year, Bampton Classical Opera specialises in bringing seldom, if ever, performed eighteenth century operas back to life. Last year it presented Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio, a 1785 work that proved Mozart learnt as much from the older composer as vice versa, and since July 2016 it has been touring a double bill of rarities by Gluck and Arne under the title of Divine Comedies.
 
Director of productions, Jeremy Gray, very much believes that it is necessary to breathe new life into works such as these in order to justify their resurrection. In this instance, however, his decision on precisely how to update them was also dictated by one specific factor. While the final performance took place in St John’s, Smith Square, earlier ones were held outdoors where it was impossible to include the type of mechanisms needed to see Jupiter descend from the heavens, as the first opera requires. Setting the operas in an airport therefore enabled him to arrive from the skies without utilising a single wire, but this was not the only reason why such a location worked so well. Airports can carry an air of glamour and decadence on the one hand, in keeping with occasions in both operas when characters are pampered, but also reveal a cross-section of figures from cleaners to VIPs, thus enabling the hierarchies inherent in the plots to come to the fore.
 
Gluck’s Philemon and Baucis (1769) was written for the wedding of Duke Ferdinand, grandson of Louis XV, and Maria Amalia, sister of Marie Antoinette. It sees Jupiter descend from the heavens incognito, in order to test his subjects’ generosity and, after receiving selfless hospitality from two humble lovers, Philemon and Baucis, makes them custodians of his temple so that they may live among the demigods. The flimsy plot is quite typical of many short eighteenth century French operas (and ballets) where the aim was to provide courtly entertainment, but this presentation certainly handed the piece much interest. It was set in an airport arrival lounge and, although the performance was technically semi-staged, it featured full costumes and a substantial set that stood in front of the orchestra.
The Overture featured an air traffic controller on the runway signalling in time to the beautiful music. This not only added visual interest, but made us appreciate the poetry in the movement of his arms as they carried out what would normally be a functional activity. Then in the opera we were introduced to a whole cross-section of society as Philemon became a customs official and Baucis a cleaner, and stewardesses, tourists and travellers (who wheeled their suitcases in choreographed movements) appeared. There were also a host of lovely touches so that when Philemon and Baucis, in their eagerness to serve, offered Jupiter refreshment they directed him towards the Duty Free.    
 
The plot feels quite weak, because the point is that Jupiter has roamed Phrygia encountering selfish people before coming across Philemon and Baucis, but he only reports his treatment at others’ hands so that this pair are the first humans that we really see him come across. As a result, it is hard for us to hook onto the idea that they are the exception to what he has seen, and, by the same token, this makes his subsequent anger at the rest of the community feel strange because to us he seems to suddenly and arbitrarily snap into a rage. In spite of this, however, atmosphere was maintained through effective alterations in lighting, as well as by the costumes and, of course, music. 
 
While Philemon and Baucis featured a translation from Gilly French, Thomas Arne’s The Judgment of Paris (1742), which describes the contest in which the shepherd judges Venus to be the most beautiful goddess, was in English to begin with. Arne set this second opera to a pre-existing libretto by William Congreve, and, as staged, the two together told of the journey from the airport’s arrivals area through Duty Free and the departure lounge to a plane in the sky. Thus The Judgment of Paris began at departures, and saw Mercury as a pilot inviting Paris to present the golden apple (here an Apple iPhone!) to whoever he judged to be the fairest. After feeling petrified at the prospect, Paris signalled his decision to accept the challenge by plucking up the courage to pass through the metal detector, thus enabling him to board the plane where the contest was to take place.
 
Once in the air, Paris was tended to and treated like a VIP by the three goddesses – Juno, Pallas and Venus – who were dressed as stewardesses, and who wooed him while acting out the standard safety procedures with their arms. When Pallas sang everyone strapped themselves into their seats as if the plane was encountering some turbulent weather, in keeping with her cry of ‘the glorious voice of War’ and the related ‘stormy’ music. When Paris finally selected Venus they found just a little privacy in the plane’s toilet cubicle!
Paul Wingfield conducted the chamber ensemble CHROMA superbly while the cast, which included Robert Anthony Gardiner and Robert Gildon, was extremely strong. Special accolades should go to Barbara Cole Walton who demonstrated some exceptionally clean, skilful and sensitive coloratura as Baucis, Catherine Backhouse who displayed a rich mezzo-soprano as Philemon, Aoife O’Sullivan who was beautifully voiced and seductive as Venus, and Christopher Turner who revealed a very strong tenor and excellent presence as Jupiter and Paris.
 
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Sam Smith

 

…a delightful evening – fun, inventive, with great ensemble singing and playing
Planet Hugill, 15 September 2016

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…a delightful evening – fun, inventive, with great ensemble singing and playing

Planet Hugill, 15 September 2016

Bampton Classical Opera is known for its country-house performances of eighteenth-century rarities in Oxfordshire. This was the London outing (13 September 2016) of this summer’s offering and a rare chance to see a staged performance at St John’s Smith Square.
 
This evening paired two short works: first was Gluck’s Philemon and Baucis of 1767, set to a "somewhat undramatic" (according to the programme note) text by scholar Giuseppe Maria Pagnini, adapted and translated by Gilly French. For the second half we had Arne’s The Judgement of Paris, written around 1745 and set to a lively text by William Congreve. Performed by Catherine Backhouse, Barbara Cole Walton, Christopher Turner, Robert Anthony Gardiner and Aoife O’Sullivan in productions directed by Jeremy Gray. Paul Wingfield conducted the instrumental ensemble Chroma.
 
We were given a great deal of background in the programme booklet and in Jeremy Gray’s talk. It reminded us just how much energy and thought – and goodwill – goes into any opera performance. We also got a printed copy of the libretto – but in print too small to be read in good lighting, let alone in the dark at St John’s. Nevertheless the performance spoke for itself.
 
Both works are characterised by mythological settings and earthly dilemmas. Gray set them around a theme of air travel, which conveniently solved the problem of the deus ex machina. Where magical effects can’t be flown from above, we had a multi-faith chapel and a tiny plane loo. The set consisted of a series of flats on the diagonal: a local airport for the Gluck and the inside of a plane for the Arne. The 21-piece band, CHROMA, were behind, almost out of sight, and depended on a large monitor halfway down the audience seating (which I must say felt quite risky, though it worked out mostly OK).
 
The setting also gave a context for the dances and extended arias. Both works are somewhat slim plot-wise, but in both cases the music provides for rich characterisation: Gluck packs so much of what was to come later in his writing into his short piece, while very little of Arne’s work survives so we have no real way of knowing how it fits into the rest of his output.
 
Philemon and Baucis are living a simple life in Phrygia, working contentedly at the airport (ARNE AIR!), when in flies the spoilt god Jupiter. Grateful that the lovers were nice to him, he offers all sorts of riches that they turn down in favour of the status quo. Catherine Backhouse’s Philemon had some of the best lines – including rhyming “chocolate biscuit” with “I wouldn’t risk it” and diction generally was excellent (at least from the front seats). Barbara Cole Walton as Baucis had the show-stopping aria “You are my shepherd and lover” complete with spectacular top G’s (G in alt!) that seemed to cost her nothing. Jupiter was a far-flung role with high coloratura and going down into a baritone register. As well as the small chorus, there were some non-singing parts for push & pull, dances with wheeled suitcases as partners, and providing a sweet flower-girl charade in the final wedding scene.
 
It was very engaging and there were some clever solutions to the problems of staging the work. It felt like an after-dinner entertainment, though I was glad to have seen it inside rather than outside in daylight.
 
The Arne was an even more energetic affair, musically and staging-wise. The airport was turned into the inside of a plane and VIP traveller Paris had to choose between three goddesses, aka cabin crew in talons-out competition for the god’s attentions. Here Aoife O’Sullivan as Venus wove sinuously around Arne’s vocal line and Christopher Turner as Paris had an easier ride than with the Gluck (musically speaking; there was plenty of turbulence in the plane…). Mercury was Robert Anthony Gardiner, upstaged in his aria by Paris trying to get through the security arch without setting off the alarm, taking selfies and generally horsing around. Musically this felt safer: Arne’s muscular English rhythms must have been easier to hold together in these circumstances than Gluck’s distinctive moving blocks of sound.
 
All in all this was a delightful evening – fun, inventive, with great ensemble singing and playing from a hugely talented and well-matched team who seemed to be having as much fun as we were.
 
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Ruth Hansford

 

Programme notes

Synopsis in detail
Jeremy Gray

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Synopsis in detail

The mood of the Overture moves quickly from calm relaxation to energetic vitality and suggests the drama ahead.  A lyrical Andante Duet, with warbling flute, introduces the simple pastoral contentment of Baucis and her beloved Philemon: See, my love, how well it pleases: sweetest music, gentle breezes. Their flirting is rudely interrupted by a scruffy stranger, who is angry at the lack of civility shown to him since his recent arrival in Phrygia: These miserable people have no understanding of their obligations as human beings.  Philemon and Baucis are quick to show him their characteristic generosity and Jupiter’s bluster and anger subside.  In a lilting Aria accompanied by strings, Philemon returns to his favourite pastime, the praise of his sweetheart, acknowledging the divine blessings they receive as a couple: This flame of my affection surges before your beauty.  The stranger offers Baucis an enchanted ‘gift of music’, and Philemon leads him away to recover from the rigours of his journey. 

Baucis muses on the stranger’s generosity, and wants to offer thanks to Jupiter, but her prayer is quickly transformed into a passionate hymn to her lover: her brilliant Aria, You are my shepherd and lover – your name, your mien astound me is richly accompanied by oboes and horns, and her amorous excitement is expressed in a coloratura line of ever-rising pitch and elaboration.  The couple’s love is celebrated in an elegant Chorus and Dance accompanied by pizzicato strings: The faithful love of the fairest of creatures inspires and teaches us how to be one.   

Contented with the goodwill of the community, the couple prepare to leave for their wedding, but the stranger suddenly returns and reveals himself as Jupiter.  He reassures them of his favour and promises to create a new temple: he himself will be the priest for their wedding.  In a surprisingly Anglican-sounding Chorus Love divine, all loves excelling  everyone wisely implores Jupiter to remain with them for ever. 

Bassoons and lower strings lend a particular colour to Jupiter’s reassuring Aria: My affection and godly devotion will require no ritual treasure.  Philemon and Baucis are overwhelmed by such divine favour and in a serene canonic Duet With this ring I pledge before you, with my body I thee cherish, they are married; the music rises in excitement and runs into a short Chorus: Celebration and elation, there’s no happier couple now.

But Jupiter now spoils the party:  his resentment against his earlier poor reception has been festering, and breaks out in a jagged and syncopated Aria, I burn with righteous fury, anger is rising within me.  For I am judge and jury, their actions I abhor.  The insistence of the music becomes more powerful [Treacherous storms and lightning, crashes of fiery thunder] until the storm breaks in a cataclysmic Tempesta con fulmini’, causing Philemon and Baucis to cry out in terror against the full orchestra, Jupiter, we repent! Would you oppress the humblest of mortals who do lament?  Fortunately Jupiter is easily appeased (or was he merely showing off?) and the skies lighten and the raindrops gradually fade: An example to all, goodness and virtue, I can do nothing to hurt you!

Other than a few soaked skins, all is well.  Jupiter explains his purpose for the couple – they are to be custodians of his temple, and to live with the demigods: more importantly their example of godly virtue will inspire the people to love one another.

Jupiter prepares to depart but reminds them that, if great cares beset thee, I’ll be watching from heaven: do not forget me!  The opera ends joyfully with a short and magnificent choral Hymn: Praise to Jove! Ye heav’ns adore him, praise him, cupids, in the height!

Jeremy Gray
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Synopsis in detail
Jeremy Gray

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Synopsis in detail

The action begins immediately as the messenger god Mercury (Hermes) approaches the Phrygian shepherd Paris with a divine task from Jupiter: From high Olympus, and the realms above, behold I come, the messenger of Jove.  Paris is commanded to award a golden apple to one of three beautiful goddesses.  In an accompanied recitative descending scales in the strings depict the descent of the goddesses: O ravishing delight!  What mortal can support the sight?...Save me rom excess of joy! – Paris faints at the awful task, and in a sprightly Air, Mercury reassures him that he will be quite safe: Fear not, mortal, none shall harm thee; with my sacred rod, I’ll charm thee!  Woodwind plays for the first time in an upbeat Duet: Happy I of human race, with no god I’d change my place.

By now the three goddesses have arrived.  First to confront Paris is Juno: [Recitative: Saturnia, wife of thund’ring Jove am I, belov’d of him, and Empress of the sky!]; she is swiftly followed by Pallas: This way mortal, bend thy eyes, Pallas claims the golden prize, a virgin goddess free from stain and queen of arts and arms I reign.  But Venus already steals attention by singing a voluptuous Air, with ‘cello solo: Gentle swain! Hither turn thee, let not Venus sue in vain.  

In a brilliantly comic and insistent Trio, all three vie for attention: Hither turn thee, gentle swain, hither turn to me again, turn to me, for I am she!  It’s hardly surprising that Paris is unable to choose: Air, Distracted I turn, but I cannot decide, so equal a title sure never was tried.  

Juno returns to the fray with an encouraging Air, which runs into a Chorus: Let ambition fire thy mind, thou wert born o’er men to reign.  Pallas retorts in a dramatic Accompanied recitative [Awake, awake, thy spirits raise, waste not thy youthful days, piping, toying, nymphs decoying], which leads into a martial Air, scored with oboes, trumpets and timpani [The glorious voice of war calls aloud, for arms prepare!].  The chorus assumes that the contest is won [O how glorious ‘tis to see, the godlike hero crown’d with victory] but Venus does not intend to give up.  She exploits all her sensuous charm in an Accompanied recitative [Stay, lovely youth, delay thy choice, take heed lest empty names enthral thee], leading to a mellifluous Air with Chorus [One only joy mankind can know, and Love alone can that bestow].  Venus persists further in a second flattering Air: Nature fram’d thee sure for loving, thus adorned with ev’ry grace.  It is all too much for a mere mortal and Paris is overcome, handing over the coveted apple:  I yield, I yield, O take the prize!....Forbear, forbear, O goddess of desire, to fan the raging fire.

Two choral numbers conclude the opera and call on nature to celebrate Venus’ triumph: Hither all ye graces, all ye loves, hither all ye hours resort, billing sparrows, cooing doves, come all the train of Venus’ court! and, finally, Sing, sing, sing and spread the joyful news around!  The Queen of Love is Queen of Beauty crowned!

Jeremy Gray
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Philemon and Baucis
Jeremy Gray

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Philemon and Baucis

The north Italian university city of Parma, a little off the tourist trail yet renowned for its eponymous ham and cheese, holds an illustrious place in the history of theatre and opera.  Its magnificent Baroque Gran Teatro, built in 1618, was inaugurated with new music by Monteverdi: much later, in 1783, the Irish tenor Michael Kelly, friend and billiard rival of Mozart (and a former keyboard pupil of Arne’s son, Michael) was thrilled to visit it, calling it “so fine an edifice, it being much larger… than any other in Europe”.  Ferdinando Paer (composer of Leonora, performed by Bampton in 2008) was born and educated in the city, producing his first opera Orphée et Euridice there in 1791.  In the 19th century the theatre was established as one of the central hubs of Italian operatic culture, and Verdi, who was born nearby, became a dominant figure in the musical life of the city, beginning with performances of Aida in 1872. 
 
The theatrical and musical culture of Parma was especially nurtured in the mid-eighteenth century by a remarkable and energetic Frenchman, Guillaume du Tillot.   Du Tillot arrived in the city in 1749 and soon rose in the estimation of the Bourbon Duke, Philip, becoming prime minister and chancellor of the Duchy of Parma.  Thanks to his shrewd cultivation of local industries ranging from fine gloves to potatoes, and his deep and educated espousal of Enlightenment culture, the city became justly recognised as “Aurea Parma”, the “Athens of Italy”.  Tillot’s energy and charisma affected every aspect of artistic and intellectual life and he created a radical amalgamation of French and Italian culture.  Central to his concerns was a new attitude to theatre and opera, encouraging hushed reverence by formerly unruly audiences to what they encountered on the stage, and engaging in the wider debate of the times concerning the reform of opera.
 
With his responsibility as court paymaster and overseer of the palaces, spectacles and festivities, du Tillot was the capable and ambitious impresario for the elaborate and sumptuous ceremonies which marked the marriage of the new 18 year-old Duke, Ferdinand, beloved grandson of Louis XV of France, and Maria Amalia, Archduchess of Austria and sister of Marie Antoinette.  The wedding, delayed some months because of the death of Pope Clement XIII, was celebrated on 19 July 1769 and festivities continued well into August, with various events democratically opened for the enjoyment and participation of the citizens.  Given the illustrious pedigrees of the couple, it is hardly surprising that no expense was spared.  The entertainments included an Arcadian fête champêtre, a tournament and a Chinese fair, collectively intended to glorify the commercial, cultural and scientific prowess of the Duchy.  Magnificent temporary pavilions were designed by the French architect Petitot.  The whole was recorded in an illustrated souvenir programme book, Descrizione delle feste celebrate in Parma l’anno 1769 with exquisite rococo engravings, planned by du Tillot to “perpetuate the memory of the events for the public benefit” and to “make the festivities permanent in the eyes of Europe through printing and engraving”.
 
The musical centrepiece was an extended operatic confection of almost Wagnerian ambition, Le feste d’Apollo, and Christoph Willibald Gluck was the natural choice of composer.  Gluck had long worked at the Habsburg court in Vienna but had also created a particular amalgamation of Italianate and French opera which must have appealed to du Tillot with his pan-European culture.  In particular Gluck was well-known to the young Archduchess Maria Amalia.  At the age of 19, she had been the oldest of the four sister Archduchesses who had premièred his Il parnaso confuso (performed in 2014 by Bampton Classical Opera) at the marriage in 1765 of her brother Archduke Joseph, later the Emperor Joseph II.  Maria Amalia was a talented young singer and took the demanding role of Apollo.  Later that year, Gluck composed another royal celebration piece for the same quartet of imperial sopranos, La corona, but the death of their father the Emperor Francis I caused it to be left unperformed.  
 
Le feste d’Apollo was a lengthy four-part entertainment, devised by du Tillot and culminating in a shortened version of Gluck’s most widely-acknowledged work, his reform opera Orfeo ed Euridice, which Maria Amalia had attended in Vienna in 1762.  The theme of the new work was naturally intended to praise the newly-weds, their virtues and aspirations.  Thus a Prologo, set in classical Athens, recalls an oracle which prophesies the royal Parma marriage and the civic benefits which will come from that reign.  The Atto di Bauci e Filemone, set to an attractive but somewhat undramatic text by a local Carmelite scholar and classicist, Giuseppe Maria Pagnini (1737-1814), adapts an Ovidian myth to praise marital fidelity and fortitude.  The third part, the Atto d’Aristeo, with a libretto by Giuseppe Pezzana (who later became Italian master to Marie Antoinette), links naturally with the final part, Orfeo, since Euridice was fleeing from the unwelcome advances of Apollo’s son Aristaeus, when she was killed by a snake.
 
Gluck was well accustomed to composing occasional celebratory pieces and his duties in Vienna had let to the creation of many such works for the weddings and name-days of the imperial family.  Like many busy composers of his age he took a pragmatic approach to composition, realising that judicious self-plagiarism was unlikely to result in recognition or cause censure.  For Le feste d’Apollo, he borrowed music from his earlier Il re pastore, Telemaco and Ezio and later he plundered parts of this new score to be recycled in Paride ed Elena and Iphigénie en Tauride.  
 
Le feste d’Apollo is thus placed between two of Gluck’s major operas – his powerful Alceste of 1767 (which has been called ‘the most persistently mournful opera ever written’) and the ‘reform’ opera Paride ed Elena of 1770.  For all its simplicity and brevity, L’atto di Bauci e Filemone anticipates the sumptuous and sensuous score of Paride ed Elena, one of his greatest yet unaccountably neglected works.  In the published preface to Alceste, Gluck had explained his reform of opera and his intention “to restrict music to its true purpose of expressing the poetry and reinforcing the dramatic situation, without interrupting the action or hampering it with superfluous embellishments.”  Other than the longest and most vocally challenging of the arias, that sung by Baucis, the music is often simple and effective as word-setting, and the sequences of musical numbers are carefully managed.  Philemon and Baucis, as befits its function at a royal wedding, celebrates conjugal patience, fidelity and love - love which is sufficiently humble and resilient to persuade even the irritable Jupiter to deflect his thunderbolts elsewhere.  
 
Whilst Pagnini’s libretto fails to develop the characters beyond idealised stereotypes of marital perfection, Gluck nevertheless creates a score of radiant beauty and mellifluous charm, with melodies and orchestrations which are both limpid and yet intriguing.  Characteristically, he uses a small orchestra with care and a sure sense of timbre.  The opening Duet for the lovers (‘See, my love, how well it pleases’) sets solo flute against bassoons and strings to paint the Claudian scene specified in the stage rubric, ‘A lovely landscape with thick woods and cottages… with the entwined branches of ancient oaks.’   Baucis’s ardent love is demonstrated in a extended da capo Allegro (‘You are my shepherd and lover’) in which the complexity and elevation of the coloratura line, accompanied by oboes and horns, create a thrilling image of breath-taking passion.  Bassoons and viola provide a remarkable sonority for Jupiter’s reassuring ‘My affection and godly devotion’, whilst the jagged syncopations and staccato in ‘I burn with righteous fury’ clearly illustrate his simmering anger which ultimately erupts into an apocalyptic storm for full orchestra.
 
Gluck was present in Parma from 23 February to 26 April 1769, and again from 5 August until 6 September, conducting the première in the Teatrino della Corte on 24 August.  In the interim he was granted permission to return to Vienna where, according to a letter written in May by an anonymous writer, he moaned bitterly about the misery, discomfort and fear he had encountered in Parma, with its despotic and violent government.  Nevertheless he praised the musical culture of the court, and it seems likely that he was well pleased with the exceptional quality of the Italian singers provided.  
 
Philemon was sung by the castrato Vincenzo Caselli, and Jupiter by Gaetano Ottani, who was something of a polymath – in addition to his singing and composing, he was an accomplished painter of Claudian landscapes and an architectural draughtsman.  Most colourful was the Ferrarese soprano Lucrezia Aguiari (1743-1783) who sang the demanding role of Baucis and who had recently been appointed virtuosa di camera at the court.  Nicknamed ‘La bastardina’ or ‘La bastardella’, she enjoyed affairs in Parma with the composers Myslivecek and Giuseppe Colla, whom she later married.  Her range of three-and-a-half octaves made her a vocal wonder of her age, and she was adept at handling the most demanding coloratura.  In 1770 she invited Leopold Mozart and his son Wolfgang to dinner, and it appears that the boy wrote a passage of exceptionally high music to test her, which he later transcribed in a letter to his sister Nannerl.  His father commented in a letter that “I could not believe that she was able to reach the C sopra acuta but my ears convinced me.”  Aguiari was also much admired for her powerful acting but opinions as to her beauty were divided: Leopold went on to remark that “she is not beautiful, but is not ugly either – she sometimes glances wildly about her, like people who have convulsions, and she has a limp.”  The latter was, according to rumour, the result of having been mauled in infancy by a dog.  Such was her fame that later in Paris and London, she was able to command an astounding fee of £100 for a mere two arias.
 
Sadly, all the best cultural efforts of Guillaume du Tillot and Christoph Willibald Gluck could not guarantee a happy marriage for Maria Amalia.  Her marriage to Duke Ferdinand was entirely against her will and resulted from her mother’s ambitious political strategies for her large family.  The girl had already rashly fallen in love with Prince Charles of Zweibrücken, and when forced into an alternative dynastic marriage her resentment against her mother festered for the rest of her life.  She failed to be diverted by the wedding celebrations, which bored her, and soon her outlandish behaviour in Parma earned her a scandalous reputation throughout Europe: she was reputed to go out at night dressed as a man, having affairs with her handsome bodyguards and gambling away her fortune.  Although a failure at court, her generosity and kindness made her popular amongst her subjects.  Michael Kelly in his Reminiscences gives a fascinating and positive account of her, enjoying her gracious company for a week in 1783 as a guest at her magnificent palace at Colorno.  Describing her as “a very fine person, very tall, and rather large” he especially respected her easy affability with the excellent musicians of her court – and she was, he ruefully acknowledged, a mean billiard player.  Kelly also gives an insight into the royal marriage – the couple “were upon good terms, but seldom together”; the Archduke was nicknamed the Royal Upholster on account of his curious obsession of hanging tapestries in the churches of his duchy and “was said never to be happy but in a church, mounted on a ladder, with a hammer in his hand.”
 
As an entity, Le feste d’Apollo probably received no further performances, and L’atto di Bauci e Filemone was unheard again until taken up by Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques in concert performances in France and Belgium in 2006, recorded under the Ambroisie label, along with L’atto d’Aristeo.  The current performances by Bampton Classical Opera are likely to be the first staging since the 1769 première.
Jeremy Gray

Artistic director

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