…a rewarding evening

Opera, September 2011

Il Parnaso confuso, a four-singer festa teatrale lasting about an hour, was the first of three pieces Gluck composed for the wedding celebrations of Joseph II and his second wife, Maria Josepha of Bavaria. (The others were given the opera Telemaco and the ballet Sémiramis).  It was given at Schönbrunn in 1765.  Four of Maria Theresa’s daughters (the eldest 22, the youngest 13) took the roles (Apollo and the three muses, Melpomene, Euterpe and Erato). Their 18-year old brother, later Leopold II, directed at the keyboard.  The court official Khevenhüller wrote in his diary that ‘all these noble persons distinguished themselves above all expectations and to universal wonder, both in singing (because of the natural beauty of their voices) and in deportment’.  Two attractive paintings by J.F. Greipel record the show.

Metastasio wrote the libretto.  Parnassus has been thrown into confusion by Apollo’s summons to the Muses to attend and grace the royal wedding: how can they produce something worthy at such short notice?  What about a Thetis and Lepeus, Melpomene suggests.  Old hat, says Erato. (Gluck has written a Tetide a few years earlier).  Then maybe a Hercules and Hebe? ‘Sterile’ is Erato’s rather daring one-word dismissal of that subject. (Gluck had composed a Nozze d’Ercole e di Elbe to celebrate Joseph’s earlier marriage; although Hercules and Hebe did bear children, Joseph remained childless).  Il Parnaso confuso is addressed to an educated audience.  Coming three years after Orfeo, it is not exactly another ‘reform’ opera, yet in one way it is: for Metastasio and Gluck join in questioning the formal conventions of opera seria by setting some very beautiful examples of its typical hit numbers – Melpomene’s ‘stormy sea’ simile aria, her lament, Euterpe’s pastoral with tibia obbligato, etc – within keen, naturalistic, critical dialogue.  Metastasio verses, Edward J Dent once wrote, should be ‘savoured like sips of an Imperial Tokay’. (Greipel depicted listeners to Il Parnaso with librettos open on their laps).  The Bampton singers didn’t really give us the full flavour.  Their Italian words were rather slackly sounded; Melpomene’s repeated ‘senza remi e senza vele’, for example, lacked the incisiveness of firm consonants.  It was a concert performance: the singers did not have their roles by heart but held scores in their hands – and rather too often addressed them rather than singing to us.  Apollo on the left, the three Muses on the right was the only hint of ‘staging’; lighting from above shone on noses and chins, leaving eyes, those vital communicators, in shadow.

But it was a rewarding evening: Bampton’s latest and choice addition to annals that also include performances of Romeo and Juliet, Don Giovanni, The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro and Falstaff by other than their familiar composers. Gillian McIlwraith, Euterpe, was the most communicative and least score-bound of the singers.  Helen Massey as Apollo, Cheryl Enever as Melpomene, Lina Markeby as Erato had pleasing sound much of the time but lacked smoothly regulated emission; there were some high notes from which one flinched, and none of them had mastered a secure, distinct trill.  With unaffected poise, Benjamin Bayl led the small band (five strings, pairs of oboes and horns, bassoon) from a fortepiano.  Gluck’s instrumental inventions are captivating: pizzicato evocations of the lyre to which Erato sings,; an oboe (eloquently played by Rachel Chaplin) to represent Euterpe’s tibia; a sudden lively run from the bassoon.  No libretto was available, but there was a graceful, informative programme essay by Claire Seymour.

Andrew Porter