‘...a work among the most interesting and attractive Bampton have discovered

Opera Now, Jan/Feb 2011

Bampton Classical Opera have merrily fought the tyranny of the standard rep for the past 18 years, and their latest unearthing was the 1799 version of Figaro by one Marcos Portugal, a (you guessed it) Portuguese composer who wrote the work for Venice.

Now it seems Portugal hadn’t seen Mozart’s Figaro or its score, but I bet someone he knew had – maybe the librettist Rossi; there are moments way too close for coincidence.  And the da Ponte libretto certainly forms the basis of the script here – the layout of the aria and recit is nearly identical, the Countess’s entrance delayed and so on.

In many ways Portugal shows how Mozart is better, but this is no rubbish, and in its finales and scoring you hear a Mayr-esque missing link between Mozart and Rossini: woodwind duets jaunt along behind Susanna – whose joyous moments express themselves in Rossinian coloratura – and the finales combine Mozart’s rhythmic gear changes with an adventurous use of modulation, notably as the Count pulls the cast out of the summer-house at the end.

There’s a good deal of simple accompaniment but characters come with an individual orchestral and rhythmic style (Cherubino in particular having a folksy, dancing idiom) that also shows a more advanced ambition than his buffa models Paisiello and Cimarosa – Portugal was of course consciously writing a sequel to Paisiello’s smash-hit Barber.

The garden performance in July was the one to have seen, but this mutatis mutandis version at St John’s had the usual romping Bampton spirit.  Nick Merryweather’s expert buffo Figaro led the dance, but the star was Susanna, sung by Emily Rowley Jones, whose strong, bright, warm and focused soprano was well up to the considerable demands that Portugal makes, and whose arching lines had a nice yearning timbre, notably in the lovely Deh vieni-style night-garden number with its elegiac double-cor anglais accompaniment.

Lisa Wilson’s Countess had a gorgeous voice too,a sort-of rivh sadness perfectly suited to the unhappy suspensions of her cavatina.  They blended ecstatically in the letter duet – one place where it’s impossible to believe someone hadn’t described ‘Che soave zeffiretto’ to Portugal.  Nice support from Joana Seara, Mark Saberton and John-Colyn Gyeantey as a lyric-tenor Count, a sentimental reconciliation scene a million miles from Beaumarchais and a few terrific ensembles rounded out a work among the most interesting and attractive Bampton have discovered.

Robert Thicknesse