Melting moments that are the best of Haydn

The Times, 19 July 2004

Always an insane venture, Bampton Classical Opera eschews such fripperies as shelter and performs in the garden of a Cotswold deanery. Last year outraged nature forced the operation into the local church, so this time the company faced down the elements by staging a work that opens in a tempest. It worked, too, despite showers in isolated arias which the game singers steamed gently through.

Haydn’s 1778 work is not as unknown as many of those the company unearths, but it is still, like all the composer’s operas, unjustly ignored. Like Mozart’s Don Giovanni, composed ten years later, it is a mixture of opera seria and buffa full of social nuance and cross-class relationships. It also prefigures Mozart to a degree, not only in its extended finales but in musical characterisation: there are adumbrations of Leporello, Masetto and Zerlina that go beyond idiomatic cliché.

With its bad-ass aristos and traduced domestics it is a high-point of the regrettable phenomenon known as Sentimentalism which Jane Austen dealt with so briskly in Sense and Sensibility. It even features a child, the kiss of death to an art form which tends to a laudable separation of the erotic and reproductive functions.

Fish-girl Rosina, loved, fer-tilised and left by toff Errico, is subject to the attentions of the local Countess (aunt of Errico), who wants her to marry the rich booby Villotto for no apparent reason, before she herself will agree to pair off with an etiolated marquis. In the end errant Errico returns to Rosina, despite her commonness: more stark realism.

The story is not brilliantly told, and wasn’t helped by an iffy translation and a standard production by Alexander Clifton. Bampton’s calling-card has been founder Jeremy Gray’s spacey, faux-naïve stagings; this was a bit of a let-down, particularly since the opera is loaded with absurdist opportunities, notably in the proto-Rossinian finales and the character of Villotto, a Woosterish oaf engagingly played by Nicholas Merryweather.

Serena Kay’s droopy Rosina was quite affecting but unkindly unsexed by the director. The rest of the cast provided good ensemble, and Murray Hipkin paced the extended finales neatly and coaxed beautifully idiomatic woodwind playing from the orchestra: this score has melting moments that are the best of Haydn, a luminosity and variety of scoring quite different from Mozart’s that make you despair of the man’s neglect.

Robert Thicknesse