…truly serious about comedy
Opera Today, October 2012
Two classic French comedies, one wardrobe…” was Bampton Classical Opera’s billing for this amusing double bill and, with typically wry wit, director Jeremy Gray duly placed a shabby-chic armoire centre-stage and made it the location of some Cherubino-Countess-style confusions and Goldoni-esque farce.
François-André Danican Philidor (1726-95) was a versatile chap: he is probably best known today as a chess master with a sophisticated set of opening moves to his name — the Philidor Defence. But, a member of a talented musical family, he also found employment at the Royal Chapel at Versailles (where he first made his mark by beating the older musicians at chess!) and was a leading exponent of the evolving genre of opéra comique. Indeed, his first opera Blaise le savetier might be judged to have marked the launch of opéra comique; moreover, both the operas in the programme seem to have anticipated (and perhaps inspired?) Mozart.
Blaise le savetier commences à la Figaro with a ‘domestic’. Young, handsome but penniless, Blaise and his vivacious wife Blaisine must battle not only against poverty but also against the predatory attentions of their rapacious landlords, Mr and Mrs Pinch. The latter are aptly named, for they squeeze every last penny and attempt to coax sexual favours from their young tenants.
Many of Philidor’s arias are quite short, interposed between the spoken dialogue, but they establish character deftly and several make effective use of the woodwind to add individuality. Martene Grimson (her real-life pregnancy adding a wry frisson to the drama!) was superb as Blaisine: her principal aria was tender and lyrical, and she acted convincingly and engagingly. As the landlord’s grasping wife, Aoife O’Sullivan brought sparkle and energy to the role. Robert Anthony Gardiner was a wily, relaxed Blaise, delivering the text crisply, and projecting clearly and with pleasing tone. He made the most of his virtuoso number, enjoying a duet with himself as he supplied his wife’s responses in resplendent falsetto counterfeit.
Philidor’s expertise at chess earned him the moniker ‘le subtil’, and dexterity, ingenuity and imagination are certainly all evident in the composer’s resourceful shaping of the numerous ensembles and dramatic use of harmony. The quintet was particularly zesty as the young couple presented a united force in the face of their hysterical landlady’s outburst; here, as throughout, Jeremy Gray’s direction was adroit, inventive but never fussy.
When André Ernest Modeste Grétry (1741-1813) appeared in Paris in 1767 he presented Philidor with a rival. (Apparently, Philidor took refuge in chess, playing blindfolded and taken on several opponents simultaneously.)
The personnel of Grétry’s L’amant jaloux (The Jealous Lover) are a familiar bunch, straight out of commedia dell’arte: an aging father, his eligible daughter, her guileful maid and two penniless suitors. The fast-paced and delightfully inconsequential plot embraces all the rudiments of commedia — mistaken identities, nocturnal hide-and-seek, with a mandolin serenade thrown in for good measure.
Don Lopez, a rich merchant of Cadiz, does not want his widowed daughter Léonore to re-marry, but she has other plans, being enamoured of the madly jealous Don Alonze. Alonze’s sister and Léonore’s friend, Isabelle, is being pursued by her tutor who wants to marry her. Florival drives away the tutor and Isabelle takes refuge with Léonore, whereupon Alonze mistakes her for a secret lover of Léonore Meanwhile Florival has fallen in love with the mysterious stranger he has rescued and arrives at the house; informed by the housekeeper that it is owned by Léonore, he assumes the latter must be the object of his affection and serenades her. He is overheard by Alonze who, in a furious rage, confronts Florival in the garden at night. Fortunately, they realise they are not rivals before they do each other any damage. A conveniently arriving inheritance allows Alonze to marry Léonore and, fulfilling the requirements the comic genre, Florival also marries Isabelle.
The soprano parts are technically demanding but all three singers coped admirably with the challenges. As Isabelle, Grimson’s coloratura was accurate and her intonation secure, while Máire Flavin was excellent as the feisty maid, Jacinthe. Tenor Oliver Mercer performed Florival’s serenade delicately and touchingly, and Oliver Dunn was strong and confident as Don Lopez. The translation by Gray and French is typically pithy, but at times some of the cast seemed not entirely comfortable in the spoken passages.
Seated behind the performers, the musicians of CHROMA performed with grace and lightness, conductor Andrew Griffiths thoughtfully highlighting the musical details in a manner which complemented the character and form of the vocal lines. Griffiths clearly appreciates the composers’ melodic inventiveness and the overall musico-dramatic structure of these works. The orchestral tone was pleasing, the intonation excellent, and the ensemble between band and singers consistent and secure.
Seeking out rarities and novelties has been a favourite, and greatly rewarding, Bampton pursuit since the company’s creation nearly twenty years ago. And, although dramatically rather slight, these two seldom performed French opéras-comiques of the eighteenth-century provided much melodious charm and humorous drollery, proving once again that Bampton Classical Opera can be relied upon to entertain with style and accomplishment: a company truly serious about comedy.