Love and death…

Manchester Evening News, 25 July 2007

Love and death were common themes in two visiting opera productions at the Buxton Festival – only in one of them there was a good deal less dying than you might expect.

There were two UK premiere performances, by Bampton Classical Opera, of an 18th century version of Romeo and Juliet – with a happy ending.

The ‘singspiel’, by the appropriately named Georg Benda, begins with star-crossed couple already married and Tybalt already dead... and ends with Juliet sitting up on her casket in the crypt and assuring Romeo she’s quite all right, after which they sing a duet, and her dad and various others gather round for a final chorus.

Not the usual concept, then, but an example of the way tastes change. Benda’s version needs only four soloists, and in this new English translation got a few laughs from the very incongruity of its spoken dialogue, which, though not Shakespeare, is in a formal, archaic style which still fails to overcome the banality of the altered plot-line.

Bampton made it a little harder for themselves by casting the two female roles with non-native English speakers. Joana Seara was pretty close to idiomatic in the dialogue, though, and sang and acted with great skill, entering into character as much as the piece permitted. Ilona Domnich sang skilfully as her confidante, Laura, but I found her dialogue quite hard to follow.

Mark Chaundy was an upright, somewhat unemotional Romeo, but Adrian Powter managed to inject some realism into the role of Juliet’s father as well as singing with distinction.

It is a tribute to Jeremy Gray’s direction and Matthew Halls’ conducting (with the Northern Chamber Orchestra in the pit) that the first-night audience, although at first politely applauding each vocal number as the show progressed, gradually ceased to do so – because they were becoming engaged, to a degree, with the piece as musical drama. Bampton have not got such promising material here as they had with Paisiello’s The Barber Of Seville (brought to Buxton by them in 2005), but in the circumstances they could hardly have hoped for a better reaction.

Robert Beale