The subtle kinship linking Bampton Opera so warmly to its audience

Oxford Times, 23 July 2004

Bampton Opera duly parted the Red Seas of this summer’s gloomy weather last Saturday to entertain a picknicking audience with Alexander Clifton’s version of Haydn’s La vera costanza. The Deanery garden seemed even more crowded this year. Word gets round of course. Traditionally, Bampton punches kilograms above apparent weight and this time Haydn’s far from milksop music helped to catch our expectations of the opera buffa style repeatedly off-guard. The purr of Murray Hipkin’s players never over-manicured the edge of Haydn’s veering moods; and the sparks that flew merged with the pleasing crackle of events on stage.

Murray Hipkin, with Gilly French, was also author of the English rendering. At one level the Bampton translations, using terms like ‘barking mad’, ‘bang goes the wedding!’ or ‘I’ve never heard such baloney’, cause mirth as elements outlandish to the museum-piece patina coating baroque recitative. At another, they peel away this dignity (never meant to be there anyway) and for all the period dress, re-jig the cast as hip purveyors of a slangy idiom. That contrast may be part of the joke; it’s also a way of signalling that, underneath the flummery, these on-stage folk are just like us. The subtle kinship linking Bampton Opera so warmly to its audience is the result.

The production paraded a well-matched and balanced ensemble, seven in all, and all hinting at a range and depth beyond instant need. Here was Serena Kay, as the fishergirl, steering the mood from tongue-in-cheek to rococo sentiment with effortless finesse; elsewhere, Nicholas Merryweather, his vocal style so natural it seemed like speech, looking artfully dishevelled and awkward as the fop. Ilona Domnich, in the meaty part of Lisetta, the maid, was as usual admirable; and a newcomer, Nicholas Sharratt, emerging on the outside stretch – as Irene’s suitor – proved richly impressive.

A bare dais, no backdrop but the tailored hedges of the Deanery, occasioned cheeky devices in the staging. A shipwreck? Sure, just jog some placards up and down, depicting a vessel in a jam. Entrances? Well, anywhere you like: including arranging for the whole cast, after dusk, to pop up from behind the hedges, lit up like spooks. The world, you soon felt, seemed not a bad place after all. Bampton, bless ‘em, had done it again.

Derek Jole