Brilliantly engaging

Music and Vision

In the fourteen years of its existence, Bampton Classical Opera (this sparkling company celebrates its 15th anniversary in 2008) has virtually set the standards for original, slick and polished UK stagings of 18th century opera. But it has also uniquely (apart from Peter Holman's Parley of Instruments, specialists in an earlier musical era) effected a revival of ignored and undervalued rare repertoire, thus inadvertently setting a trend that is, in its own way, as significant an achievement as the 1970s and '80s period instrument revival.

Stephen Storace (England's finest around the 1790s) may not yet be a household name, nor his terrific treatment of Shakespeare's Plautine farce The Comedy of Errors, which contains choral finales on a par with his mentor Mozart (Storace's sister was Mozart's first Susanna). Giovanni Gazzaniga's Don Giovanni hasn't exactly ousted Mozart's in popular affections, or Paisiello's The Barber of Seville quite notched up a place beside Rossini. Yet Bampton has got people talking about these composers for whom nobody else in Britain does anything.

Salieri's Falstaff -- as good as Verdi's? Well yes, just possibly! And The Philosopher's Stone, Schikaneder's Magic Flute curtain-raiser, pioneered by Bampton (who mounted the British stage première), was snapped up by Garsington -- which has also (in baritone Mark Saberton) benefited from the fruitful dramatic and vocal nursery that is Bampton.

Thanks in part to the spiritedness of their translations (Bampton performs in English and in producers Gilly French and Jeremy Gray has its own in-house Jeremy Sams and Amanda Holden), and to the clarity of its diction, the outrageous flippancy of its stagings and the impudent wit of its polished young performers, Bampton stagings are sheer unadulterated delight...with no cheating on or shortcutting the Geist (or spirit) appropriate to each opera, Bampton (like Emanuel Schikaneder before them), seem on the edge of creating a new genre.

Bampton is a take-off point for young talent, and those who move on from the Oxfordshire- (and now Gloucestershire- and Derbyshire-) based company are never quite the same again. Thomas Guthrie, whose daring, brilliantly imaginative stagings of Purcell (in particular) have led him to a place as a director on the Royal Opera House's Young Artists programme, has his own trademark talents, but there is always a bit of Bampton buried among them. Bampton clings to you. Likewise its conductors, who have included the gloriously maverick David Owen Norris, the King's Consort's Matthew Halls and -- no less -- the new music director of English National Opera, Edward Gardner, have caught the bug of these wayward, never flashy productions. Bampton is like a disease you catch and never quite recover from.

Invariably Bampton springs surprises in its idyllic garden setting (when it can: the first Oxfordshire performance fell on the day of the July monsoon, when most of the drenched audience never made it through flooded roads. It was given in the adjacent St Mary's, Bampton, devoid of the marooned orchestra, but with Halls bravely score-reading the score, partly by candlelight but mainly thanks to a lamp powered by a running car battery, kindly fixed up by a sympathetic, roll-up-your-sleeved audience member).

This year it was Romeo and Juliet [seen 27 August 2007], better known as an opera by Gounod or Bellini, but in this case by Georg Anton Benda, a Czech (Jirí Antonín Benda, 1722-95), but affiliated -- as one had to be after the Battle of White Mountain (1620), when Bohemia was overrun by the Austrian Empire -- to his Viennese masters and the Austro-German tradition. Two centuries later even Dvorák had to speak German at school, and Czech opera of the 18th century was deep-rooted in the German tradition (think of Mozart's Don Giovanni première at Prague's German Opera house), as was that of the late 19th century, headed by Dvorák, Foerster and Fibich.

Benda sealed his German affinities with the eight years he passed, in his twenties (from 1742) in the orchestra of Frederick the Great in Berlin and Potsdam . Paris and Naples aside, training didn't come much better than that. Like Myslivecek and perhaps Vorisek, Benda was one of those Bohemian composers Mozart not only admired, but devoured and respected. In 1778 young Wolfgang saw Benda's Medea in Mannheim -- the Palatinate alternating capital (with Heidelberg ) and the German world's musical Mecca ( Berlin and Vienna apart) during Haydn's and Benda's day. He obtained a score, and acquired that of Benda's Ariadne too.

Mozart admired the drama of the accompanied spoken passages (both works were not so much Singspiels, like The Magic Flute, but Melodramas, with long solo scenas of chilling poignancy and intensity. 'I carry' (he told his father) 'Benda's scores around with me.' Indeed you can feel the Czech's enduring influence in the spoken passages of The Magic Flute, in Il Seraglio, and (Gray points out) in scores such as Zaide. Benda influenced others too, including Beethoven not just in his Prometheus years, but the period of first Leonora and later Fidelio as well.

It is the great scenas that are at the heart of Benda's Romeo and Juliet, and which render it, in places, a very considerable drama. There are half a dozen, which embrace a striking rage of shifting moods and doubts, yet which also confirm this opera's affinities with the essential unities and dramatic simplicity passed on by Gluck to Salieri and Mozart. Conversely, it is not a very long opera, and, to be fair, in some ways an unsatisfactory one dramatically -- unbalanced, lacking a profound libretto (the unintended comedy that surfaced here, for Capulet, for instance, rested in its ineptness) and rather too influenced by the fads, exported from London, of David Garrick and actor-managers of that period. Happy ending predictable: at the end of the opera's tomb scene these lovers recover, are blessed by chastened (enlightened?) parents and, à la Dryden, happily married.

Curiously, the poignancy with which Juliet (the sensationally good young Portuguese-born soprano Joana Seara) cradles a white cushion, like a swaddled baby, in Act I of Jeremy Gray's serviceable production is all to do with the fact that we know (or thought we knew) that she and Romeo will never spawn one. In fact in this oddly Balfeian ending, we get the impression that a lusty, fond Romeo (tenor Mark Chaundy) will sire more than the statutory two and a half offspring upon her. The Montulets will soon be swelling in numbers.

Rather weakly moved on the very good set by Nigel Hook, which converted bedroom to family vault with skilful ease and provided a picture-frame like feel oddly akin to David McVicar's, Chaundy's Romeo cuts a rather feeble figure at the outset. But his biggest outpouring comes in a superbly varied and passionate aria Benda allocates him in the last Act (the well-managed tomb scene, led in by a sensational mourning chorus of Verdian intensity, terrifically acted and directed), in which soloists and orchestra under the King's Consort and Amsterdam Baroque's Matthew Halls -- not too practised in bringing out real liveliness in this charming but acoustically not unproblematic outdoor setting -- both excelled.

Even Capulet (Adrian Powter) gets a basso scena or two, part-comic in its sheer histrionics, in part extremely touching. There is no nurse, but a soubrette, a friend (Laura) who is a bit of a moralising pain, plus a mysterious aunt Camilla, from nowhere in Shakespeare, who seems to be the eminence not just grise but gruesome. Ilona Domnich sang Laura's set pieces with a very nice vocal character and fluency.

Jeremy Gray suggested in his very pertinent talk beforehand that the opera should really be Juliet and Romeo (a bit along the lines of Berlioz's Capulets and Montagues). Gray also hinted at some Benda influence on Berlioz -- and my goodness, you could hear it in the music: Cleopatra, Dido, Romeo and Juliet -- you name it. The two or three biggest scenas are for Juliet, all meaty ones. And what heaven they were, in Joana Seara's delicate and tender hands. This gorgeous young soprano has everything one could desire vocally. It's a more refined voice than, say Bottone's famously raunchy, sensual soprano -- more a Natalie Dessay than a bare-it-all Jessye Norman -- though both have brought fabulous coloratura gifts to make Bampton better and brighter than ever. The delicacy of each move of Juliet, each half-line uttered, was touching in the extreme: a mark, too, of the subtlety of Benda's dramatic vocal layout, with a feeling for word-setting that explains Mozart's profound admiration for him. As a result, the glories of this completely neglected music beamed out -- as so often with Bampton's boldly-imagined and resiliently-researched choice of repertoire.

There was indeed, as Gray told us there would be, a feel of not just the pathetic, abandoned Ariadne but the steely, unflinching Medea about this Juliet. Which is exactly what Shakespeare intended for this gutsy, older-than-her-young years girl, who seems in the original to epitomise the very end of a medieval era and parentally-imprisoned ethos in her eagerness to sealed the wedded knot, at not quite age fourteen. A thing of the past? No, a girl very much of our own era, and a tale of modern-day liberation. Brilliantly engaging: Benda emerged triumphant, Bohemia shone like a beacon, and Bampton blossomed yet again.

Roderic Dunnett