a serious business with remarkable artistic standards

Opera, October 2009

As the skies threatened and we shrank beneath (in my case) blanket, shawl, scarf, mackintosh and umbrella, I wondered what weakness had made me go to Bampton to review Haydn’s drama giocoso Le pescatrici.  I’mnot keen on camping, especially without a tent.  As the excellent orchestra struck p, the clouds joined in with a merry shower, about the same length as the overture and just long enough to soak us, while a cooling gale blew a prop (a vase of flowers) to the ground within the southern-Italian seaside-café setting, a cruel fantasy of blue skies, beach-huts and golden sands.

But I am a latecomer to this enterprising festival, founded in 1993 and now branching out into other venues, including this year Westonbirt, the Cheltenham Festival, Wigmore Hall and St John’s Smith Square.  One quickly realizes that this is a serious business with remarkable artistic standards, the simplicity of its Deanery Garden location and al fresco acoustic notwithstanding.  It has huge charm, eyes and ears for spotting young talent, no pretensions (kagouls soon put a stop to that) and a hunger for digging out operatic rarities by the likes of Benda, Gazzaniga, Paer, Paisiello and Salieri.

This was Bampton’s third Haydn, in part to celebrate the anniversary but also to build on a tradition which began with L’infedeltà delusa and La vera costanza.  The programme acknowledges the pioneering efforts of Garsington’s founder, Leonard Ingrams, in bringing these little-known works back into the repertoire, and one senses a healthy mutual support between these two Oxfordshire festivals.  Le pescatrici (1770), completed by H.C. Robbins Landon and with a Così-meets-Cenerentola plot, bubbles with constantly busy string writing, trumpet-and-drum energy and several spiffing arias.  The nine-strong cast ranged from promising to outstanding, all throwing themselves into the spirit of Jeremy Gray’s witty 1960-ish updating. Mark Chaundy and Andrew Friedhoff (the fishermen lovers) and Robert Winslade Anderson (Mastricco) were strong.  Serena Kay’s petulant fishergirl Nerina and Lina Markeby as the fervent, nun-like princess Eurilda combined secure vocal agility with well-crafted acting.  As the solemn foreign Prince, the Czech baritone Vojtech Safarik was silken-toned and controlled, his clear but slightly accented English giving the right touch of exoticism.  The evening’s best singing came from Emily Rowley Jones (Lesbina), who wiggled her hips and fired off her coloratura with crisp precision and sharp humour.  Alice Farnham, conducting, held all together with spirited aplomb, despite the difficulties of the singers often not being able to see her beat. That a few near-disasters were averted was a credit to everyone’s preparation.  The rhyming translation, by Gray and Gilly French (Bampton’s artistic directors) was brilliant, racy and audible, losing no opportunity for jokes of the fishy and chippy variety.  We all had a whale of a time.

Fiona Maddocks