…delightfully entertaining, remarkably confident and outstandingly assured…

Opera Today, 24 March 2009

Schubert was desperate to be an opera composer — or so one might surmise from the many (at least 18) attempts he made to make a name for himself as a man of the theatre.

Given that each Schubert Lied is in many ways a ‘mini-opera’ — tightly dramatic, conveying character, situation and a gamut of emotions with immediacy and power, the ‘meaning’ expertly communicated through an intense interaction of words and music — one might have expected him to have been more successful. Unfortunately, while he understood perfectly the musico-dramatic conventions of Mozart and his contemporaries, he failed to find his Da Ponte … and repeatedly applied his musical talents to undeserving material.

However, with ‘The Conspirators’ — his sixth and final effort in Singspiel — Schubert found some posthumous success; written in 1823, it was only performed privately during his lifetime, but the public staging in 1861 was well-received and the work became a popular success. One can imagine that its wit and parody were instantly appealing to the admiring Arthur Sullivan who, in the autumn of 1867, travelled to Vienna, returning with a treasure-trove of rescued Schubert scores.

Modelled on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Schubert’s libretto, written by Ignaz Franz Castelli, presents a tale of domestic discord and sparring spouses. The original play is a comic account of one woman’s mission to end The Peloponnesian War: Lysistrata convinces the women of Athens and Sparta to withhold sexual privileges from their husbands as a means of forcing the men to forgo warmongering, a peace strategy that ironically inflames the battle between the sexes. Castelli updated the action - a band of Crusaders, commanded by Baron Herbert von Ludenstein, are dissuaded from continually waging war by their wives, led by the Baroness — and removed some of Aristophanes’ more explicit obscenities! This was not enough to prevent trouble with the censors, however; for somewhat obscure political reasons, they balked at the title and insisted on having the opera renamed Der Häusliche Krieg (The Domestic War). It seems Schubert’s was out of luck once again …

Sadly, in this domestic tussle, the women do not prevail; but, whatever their own feminist principles, this did not prevent the girls of Queen’s College London from presenting a delightfully entertaining, remarkably confident and outstandingly assured performance of this unjustly neglected opera.

Bampton Classical Opera has an admirable history of devising challenging educational projects which enable young singers to work with professional musicians, thereby encouraging them to aspire to, and attain, the highest standards. In this shrewdly cast production, the young soloists proved an equal match for the two professional singers, tenor Tom Raskin and baritone Edmund Connolly, who supported and encouraged the young performers sensitively throughout. Indeed, ‘The Conspirators’ seems ideally suited to young, light voices, with its sequence of lyrical solos and duets demanding not virtuosity but clarity and precision, interspersed with lively, inventive ensembles — many of which had been deftly arranged and reallocated to allow members of the chorus to step briefly into the limelight.

After the Singspiel style, the dramatic action is largely conveyed spoken dialogue. Rightly doubtful that the witticisms of the 1823 text would still pack a punch, Gilly French and Jeremy Gray also revised the text, providing a new English translation, brisk and uncluttered, which struck an effective balance between detail and dramatic momentum. Even the literal silencing, by a severe throat infection, of one of the leading ladies could not stall the show: Hannah Burns read the dialogue from the wings with fluency and naturalness, while Katya Farkas’ graceful gestures and eloquent movement aptly expressed Isella’s coyness and cunning. In the opening duet, Isella’s lines were performed by thirteen-year-old Ella Clayton who, having learned the part at extremely short notice, displayed a confidence and talent far beyond her years.

All soloists showed themselves capable of projecting a range of musical emotions. Alice Sharman, remarkably convincing as Isella’s lover, Udolin, relished the occasion and was inspired to reach the peak of her performance in her ensembles with the male professionals. Alexandra Soiza communicated both Helene’s misery and her resolution in her beautiful opening aria, in which she laments the prolongued absence of her husband, Astolf. And, as the bossy Baroness, Theodora Hand delivered a consummate musical and dramatic performance which suggested that her operatic ambitions may well be fulfilled in years to come.

Perhaps the highlight of this opera is Schubert’s ensemble writing: given the opera’s clear delineation of the sexes, he shows a genius for exchange, for phrases that call across a musical space and are answered in kind. This production made the most of such opportunities, exploiting the small stage effectively and utilising the whole performance venue to take advantage of the antiphonal and imitative writing. Indeed, the staging was extraordinarily inventive. The restricted space and budget were no hindrance to the imagination of director Jeremy Gray: a combination of neat motifs and swift gestures produced the deft visual and verbal wit which has come to characterise Bampton Classical Opera’s unfussy, sharp approach.

The chorus also included members of the College staff. And, throughout there was a sense, not just of ambition and aspiration, but of genuine enjoyment and fun — a joy which was shared and conveyed by the small accompanying ensemble under the assured baton of Gilly French. A delightful evening.

Claire Seymour