rich and credible operatic entertainment

Music and Vision, September 2002

Bampton Classical Opera is an enterprising company whose main arenas are on the country house circuit in Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. They recently abandoned the pure air temporarily and brought one of their productions to the 'smoke' of London's St John's, Smith Square. Now in their tenth season, they have made a significant and valuable niche in the operatic world with their espousal of rarely performed eighteenth century operas. Whilst, inevitably, the odd exhumation has not brought into serious question the decent burial accorded by history, our knowledge and experience can only be enhanced by their enterprise. All power to their corporate elbow!

No possible musical doubts, however, arise over the present production, Waiting for Figaro, which offers their fortunate audiences some glorious mature Mozart which has very rarely seen the light of day in live performance. If this seems unthinkable, let me explain that Waiting for Figaro is an entertainment offering the music Mozart wrote for Der Schauspieldirektor, K486, Lo Sposo Deluso, K430/421a and L'Oca del Cairo, K422. Lo Sposo Deluso exists as only four extant musical numbers, and L'Oca del Cairo as a virtually complete, but extensively unorchestrated first act, so that, whilst recordings have brought us the music, they have been unperformable as operatic dramas.

That is, until now. The joint directors, Thomas Guthrie and Jeremy Gray have come up with an ingenious idea to make an evening's operatic experience that makes complete sense, and which allows us the invaluable experience of seeing how Mozart's handling of operatic drama was developing between Die Entführung and Figaro. It is a positively revelatory experience that mere listening or score-reading cannot provide.

Their solution, which perhaps owes something to Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos, is as simple as it is clever: take the music and basic 'luvvie' comedy of Die Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario), and re-write the scenario around a projected production of Figaro. The two prime donne, claws extended, audition with their over-the-top arias. But there is a slight technical problem. The Figaro score has not arrived. All spare copies have been assigned to more high-profile country house companies such as Glyndebourne and Garsington -- a nice bit of self-deprecating comedy.

So poor old Bampton is fobbed off with Lo Sposo Deluso (The Deluded Bridegroom).

Nil desperandum! We'll get on with rehearsing that. And so The Deluded Bridegroom is brought to the stage, albeit in rehearsal. Fine. But there's another problem: four glorious musical numbers, (and they are), do not an opera make. But what's this at the bottom of the parcel? Yes, you've guessed: L' Oca del Cairo (The Cairo Goose). End of part 1. Rehearsal over, operatic politics as much resolved as may be, to the concluding numbers of The Impresario. Part 2: a fully-staged performance of The Cairo Goose. Result: a full evening of rare Mozart.

What we were given was much, much more than a tantalising series of Mozart's abandoned offcuts; we were treated to a rich and credible operatic entertainment, and a deep insight into the creative mind of a genius.

In the revised scenario, the producers and company are 'waiting for Figaro'. In his own creative 1780s development, Mozart was also waiting for Figaro, or, rather, the polished ingenuity of a Da Ponte libretto to liberate his greatest inspirations. In the meantime, though, in these miniatures and fragments, we can glimpse the detail of his period of gestation and experience the journey of his work in progress.

What stands out most of all is the marvel of Mozart's characterisation and ensemble writing, so manifest in Figaro itself, of course, but often raised to a comparable level in these little-known scores. The finale of this surviving act of L'Oca, for example, is a marvel of intricacy and interaction of character, and there are several character studies that can be readily identified in their later and finished perfection in the Da Ponte operas. The early duet of the lovers, Chichibio and Auretta in L'Oca has Figaro and Susanna written all over it in musical style and interaction of character. What a tragedy that Mozart never saw fit to complete this tantalising work, with such a brilliant and performable act already virtually finished in all but the details of orchestration. Here, Erik Smith's seamless reconstruction was used.

The four surviving pieces of Lo Sposo are equally fine in themselves, but, of course much more difficult to perform credibly on stage. The overture, conceived in the manner of that to Die Entführung (fast-slow-fast with a direct link into the first vocal number), is a marvellous piece, with an absolutely ravishing slow central section in triple time. Buried treasure indeed.

As befits such music, the singers of Bampton opera are all fine ensemble players, striking sparks off each other, and clearly enjoying the often ridiculous fun of these pieces. Ilona Domnich and Betabée Haas relished the wonderfully silly vocal rivalry in The Impresario, the swooning portamenti of one's 'adagio, adagio!' vying with the other's 'allegro allegrissimo' with wonderful comic effect, and if this music was on the very edge of what they found technically possible, then that is probably the intended effect. I was reminded of Irving Berlin's take on this idea in 'Anything you can do I can do better'. These ladies delighted later in the more ingratiating writing accorded them in the other works.

Amanda Pitt is a real discovery; a fine singer and a wonderful comic character actress. Cast as a student on work experience in the re-vamped plot of The Impresario, she gave a delicious display of feminine wiles and cunning in manipulating the hapless management to her own ends. Her delightful and characterful assumption of Auretta in L'Oca makes me keen to see what she would make of Susanna and Despina in full-blown Da Ponte/Mozart.

The men had less opportunity to show off musically, but they all contributed well to a strong team, and, as I indicated, ensemble playing was the great strength of this cast.

An alert period band produced some lovely sounds. I was particularly taken with the mellifluous sounds of the 'authentic' clarinets. Small wonder that Mozart was to have such a love affair with the instrument. A couple more desks of strings would have provided a better overall balance, but Edward Gardner's conducting was a model of Mozartian style throughout, and gave much pleasure.

It is a long time since I relished an operatic experience so much, and we must be deeply grateful to Bampton Opera for allowing us to hear and see these pieces. I am now 'waiting for Figaro' to be performed again somewhere, and when I go, I feel I will experience it with a deeper understanding of the thought-processes that went into its creation.

David Thompson