Joy, nimbleness and irony in Bampton’s Mozart rarity

The Oxford Times 3 August 2001

The Philosopher’s Stone, which received its first English staged performance at Bampton last weekend, directed by Jeremy Gray, leads you a merry dance if you try to track the plot too closely, or divert yourself in spotting he bits that Mozart wrote. One of a succession of often co-operatively-written, 'fairy-tale' Singspiele which Schikaneder put on at his Theatre auf der Wieden after 1789 ( The Magic Flute was soon to follow), it gestures affectionately towards the Plautine comic usages, and makes its tangle of complexities a running joke.

How to treat an opera like this, awash with make-believe, in ways to charm away our modern taste for blunt reality? Answer: ensure your singing, acting and orchestral strengths are faultlessly in place, and then have as much joy as you can. It works. The squirting Roman-candle shower that signalled finis to the first part of the work, and shed its lustre on the twilit garden of the Bampton Deanery last week, was emblem of the champagne-flavoured chutzpah of a very funny, pacey show.

But 'fun', perhaps, is not the mot juste here. A kindly irony pervades this piece. All personae are, in some way, in the frame of only from the clownish situations that the plot inspires. Astromonte (Benjamin Hulett) is 'a beneficent god' but his descent dressed as an astronaut, his NASA gear in place, pokes ridicule at everyone, not least himself. And there, among the characters, a to-and-fro of clashing values moderates our loyalties; if Nadir and Nadine (Marke Wilde, Amanda Pitt) seem a shade too solemn in their mutual love, the roguish conduct of their mirror images, Lubano and Lubanara (Thomas Guthrie, Gillian Keith) accounts for it.

On stage, the spread of singing expertise, all young, but all extremely watertight, meshed with the gilded swiftness of events, the choral moves, the witty aptness of the chinking rhymes by Barry Millington. Gillian Keith, embracing her first operatic part with quality and vocal zest, also acted fearlessly; her portrait of the ruthless flirt, condemned by Eutifronte’s spell to sing 'just like a cat', (and how endearingly) was done with every sign of spontaneity.

Yet picking out your leading players here is fairly odious. Mark Saberton, arrayed in evil biker’s kit as Burtifronte, deployed a fine-grained bass. The high jinks Thoms Guthrie brought to sharpen up his role, were matched, likewise, by keen-edged tenor nimbleness. And finally Amanda Pitt, her haunting mezzo right in tune, on two occasions stole the show. No-one, though, displaced the general focus and momentum of events. It was an enterprise shared equally by all – and by the watchers too.

Derek Jole