the cheeky, the ingenious and the bizarre

Opera, 15th July 2005

Bampton Classical Opera’s stagings of comic opera are endless fun; invariably, you die of laughter. Yet Jeremy Gray’s and Gilly French’s sparkling ensemble has proved it has a nobler mission. In its captivating Oxfordshire Deanery garden setting its snappy productions juxtapose the cheeky, the ingenious and the bizarre with a genuine serious concern to make the music tell, engaging gifted young singers, capable orchestral players, and invariably charming the swallows overhead to join in.

They staged Paisiello’s Nina a few seasons ago; next season they have Martin y Soler in their sights. This summer’s romp was Paisiello’s Barber of Seville. The inevitable question was whether it would remotely hold its own when weighed against Rossini’s masterpiece, which eclipsed it three decades after it was first staged in St.Petersburg in 1782 and Vienna in 1783 - three years before Mozart’s Figaro.

Not really. Yet with a cast as zippy as this, pacy recitative and a clutch of deft and daft ensembles, it was easy to see why Paisiello had his champions. The real star of the evening was Gilly French’s cleverly inventive rhymed translation – witty, lucid, always audible and a boon to all the singers. Adrian Dwyer’s lightish but characterful tenor and perky personality made a charming job of Almaviva, from the early serenade to the lovely ‘Cara sei’ which sets in train the bustling extended finale. Rebecca Bottone (Rosina) is a scrumptious talent in the making: her upper register is clear as a bell, her tone appealing right across the range, and amid the poutings and yearnings she has the look of a versatile actress.

The Figaro, Nick Merryweather, has virtually grown up with the company. He’s not just an endlessly slick performer, blissfully adept at making Bampton’s zany kind of comedy work, but produces an admirably resonant baritone that impresses on every hearing. Other companies should catch him while they can.

The comedy, abetted by Paul Carey Jones’s delightfully awful, jealous Bartolo, was a hoot. This was Seville modestly rejigged (by Nigel Hook) as a holiday camp, with ubiquitous red- (or pink-)coats (two of whom have a glorious snoring and sneezing duet), rattling window boxes and television aerials (for a hilarious storm sequence) and unlikely oranges festooning the Bampton box hedges.

There was one slow set change, and just occasionally the stage business erred on the silly side; more often Gray displays a wonderful eye for paradox, sending things up much as Paisiello’s score does, which both typifies and impishly parodies the Italian style. Paul Hoskins directed an orchestra whose strings produced near-period precision. Not quite Rossini, inevitably, but far from a mere pallid predecessor.

Roderic Dunnett