just right… excellent

Opera Now, November/December 2008 Early Music Today, October/November 2008

Bampton Classical Opera has a habit of putting on out-of-the-way operas; previous seasons hve seen productions of operas by Arne, Benda, Gazzaniga, Soler, Salieri and Storace to name just a few.  This season was no exception; a productions of Ferdinando Paer’s Leonora, and this, a period-performance in English of two minature operas: Gluck’s one-act gentle comedy about alleviating boredom, and Mozart’s first stab at an opera, written at the age of 12.

The setting was a sunny yet windy (which caused a variety of minor problems dealt with well and amusingly by the cast) corner of the spectacular main building of Westonbirt School in Gloucestershire; a vast, 19th-century mansion in some beautiful grounds.  Despite the period orchestra, the open-air set, designed as the women’s quarters of a Chinese house, had a number of modern touches.  It was simple but effective, and remained the same for both operas; the Olympic Rings that adorned the wall were equally suitable for China and Ancient Greece.

Gluck’s opera is an opera about nothing at all, but the cast turned his only real attempt at Italian comedy into an amusing divertissement.  Three girls are joined illicitly by a man in their quarters, and decide to each try their hand at opera.  One chooses tragedy, one pastoral, one comedy – with an additional love interest thrown in to the plot for good measure.  Each singer gets an aria – these were all pleasant and well-sung, particularly the pastoral tenor aria – and at the end they all decide to learn to dance instead.  Director Jeremy Gray got the production just right here, and the singers were excellent.

Mozart’s opera is also very much an opera in minature – one is whipped through the plot in little more than an hour.  The music is pleasant, if understandably more traditional I form than Mozart’s later operas and with little time for any development of the characters.  It was staged as though the Chinese women from the first half were performing, a neat touch that also got round  problems of scenery and costume changes.

Again, the singers, most of whom had sung in the Gluck, were mainly excellent, the highlight being Martene Grimson as Melia, who had the choicest arias and took advantage of it.  Tom Raskin was strong both in the Gluck and as King Oebalus, and Lina Markeby and Serena Kay also shone.  The orchestra, directed by Christian Curnyn, could have been more in tune at times – though their tent was not the most accommodating venue in which to perform.  The only real flaw here was the production, which added moments of humour at the most inappropriate moments.  Zephyr trying to get a bucket off his head for a whole da capo aria whilst Hyacinth sings solemnly in praise of the gods; Melia throwing comedy plastic apples at Apollo when she thinks he has killed her brother.  It’s not necessary; why not give Mozart’s music a chance to speak for itself?

Jonathan Wikely