A rare treat in an Oxfordshire country garden...

Independent  25 July 2000

He wrote over 15 operas, and a lament for Marie Antoinette; his sister was the Emperor's favourite, and Mozart's Susanna. He was dead by 33. Bampton Classical Opera was bound to fall for Stephen Storace. Over the years Jeremy Gray has made a speciality of reviving rare 18th century fare amid the topiary of an Oxfordshire country garden.

What with bats, swallows and swifts, they could have made a bid for Storace's The Haunted Tower (1789, of all years), or The Pirates (l792). But this summer, going one better, they served up a Lorenzo da Ponte double. For the version of The Comedy of Errors (Gli Equivoci), an uncannily clever, sly adaptation of the Roman Comedy-steeped Shakespeare play about the shenanigans of two pairs of Grecian twins, was by none other than the librettist of Mozart's crowning trilogy.

We should thank Joseph II. Gli Equivoci was an imperial commission, issued in 1786, the year Figaro hit the stage. It's impossible not to recognise in the ensembles - duets, double trios, quartets of varying components, septets - countless echoes of the brilliant Mozartian egg da Ponte had just laid.

What's more, Storace (whether or not Mozart gave him "lessons"; more relevant is the numerous beers they shared) was not just a superbly fluent Mozart parodist, but arguably a master in his own right. His orchestration only intermittently makes the leap - flutes in Euphemio of Syracuse's wooing aria, lulling pizzicato strings for Adriana's bizarrely melting "Scottish" song, swooshes of Stadler clarinet). He lacks, as yet, Mozart's decorative and obbligato brilliance. But the ensemble writing, including a couple of "amazed" quartets that make early Verdi seem old hat, a stunning Figaro-like extended close to Act I, and a bonanza finale that knocks spots off A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, left one gasping.

Bampton productions have improved by miles. There was one Achilles heel: the string playing on the first night - aargh! Contrast their Cosi (also da Ponte) a few nights earlier, inspiredly clearly staged by Robert Bateman in an outside apse of Westonbirt School, Tetbury - a superb opera setting. Everything went right : Simon Over's overall shaping, some beautifully responsive continuo and top-notch upper strings and woodwind matched an equally lucid sextet, topped by Cato Fordham's Ferrando.

But if the strings creaked for Gli Equivoci, the comedy didn't let up. The mock-oriental set (Laura Ashley had a hand in it) appealed; more importantly, it was ingeniously used. Gray shrewdly contrived exactly the kind of visual variety and zip Shakespeare's original demands, yet always so as to abet the dramatic impact of Storace's vital score.

Both (baritone) Dromios shone vocally: Ephesus (Thomas Guthrie) like a fleeting oriental flibbertigibbet, Syracuse (Mark Saberton) in da Ponte's poignantly devised reunion with his own lost offspring (here, daughter). Amanda Pitt's torn Luciana tugged the heartstrings; tenor Benjamin Hulett's Syracusan Antipholus (da Ponte renames them Euphemio), Nicholas Merryweather's Angelo (da Ponte doubles him with Dr.Pinch: the snaky results were achingly funny), Catherine Hamilton's flummoxed Adriana and Henry Herford's Solomonian Solinus were pick of the voices. But my, does this music - especially in Arthur Jacobs's Sams-like pithy translation - cry out to be recorded.