Review by Malcolm Miller 20 August 2000

Malcolm Miller

An open-air revival of Stephen Storace's sparkling comic opera Gli Equivoci, or The Comedy of Errors, to a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, was presented on 21/22 July by Bampton Classical Opera locally in the UK's Oxfordshire. Possibly the first operatic adaptation of a Shakesperean comedy, its complex plot of lovers' confusion and reconciliation was presented zestfully and imaginatively staged by Jeremy Gray, using a wittily rhyming English translation made by the late Arthur Jacobs, first used at the 1974 Camden Festival.

Stephen Storace is best known for ballad operas, and his sister Nancy was the first Susannah in Mozart's Figaro. Storace's visits to Vienna to see her brought friendship with Mozart and others, and led to commissions from the Imperial Court for several operas, including Gli sposi malcontenti of 1785, the success of which led to Gli Equivoci. Its premiere in December 1786 followed after that of Figaro seven months earlier. There are several important connections between them. Lorenzo da Ponte was librettist for both works and the two lead roles in both were sung by Nancy Storace and Benucci (the first Figaro). Other similarities are evident, especially the finale of Act 1 as a nocturnal farce confusing lovers' identities.

Bampton's delightful venue was adorned with a raised stage that presented an ingenious all-purpose set, a bright red ornamented frontage with windows and doors, which became a street, the house of the Syracusian Euphemio, and the Duke's court. The orchestra on the side suffered some inaudibility, but enough was detected to enjoy the colourful wind writing, which was influenced by Mozart's example.

Whilst Storace cannot match Mozart in expressive depth and complexity, his dramatic pacing equals any of his contemporaries. Attractive melodic writing and scoring, and the adept ensembles show both Viennese classical charm and the inflection of English and Scottish folk-song characteristic of his many ballad operas. The use of woodwinds is Mozartian, yet in general Storace's structures are simpler in harmonic and thematic development, revealing some weaknesses expected of a lesser talent alongside Mozart. Storace does provide appealing textures and buoyant rhythms, spiced with occasional surprises. Especially effective is the overture with its vivid depiction of a storm that shipwrecks the Syracusians Euphemio and his servant Dromio in Ephesus, and Storace's evocations of thunder and lightning reminiscent of Idomeneo.

Some of his arias are entrancing, particularly the touching piece for Dromio when he discovers his wife Lesbia and daughter Dromia, and two love arias in the second act. There are also several racy patter songs. Even more delightful are the ensembles in each act and the multi-section finales which owe much to Da Ponte's experience as a librettist.

Particularly effervescent at Bampton was the nonet in the Act 1 finale as each group of characters, the wife and sister, and the two pairs of Euphomios and Dromios, challenge each other in the dark, with comical effects reinforced in the orchestration. There was fine projection from the singers Catherine Hamilton as Adriana, Amanda Pitt as Luciana her sister, Benjamin Hulett and the experienced baritone of Mark Saberton, as well as David Murray and Thomas Guthrie, and Gillian French as Lesbia. The Act II finale takes place at the ducal court where the Duke, a Sarastro-like character symbolic of Enlightenment justice and reason was nobly sung by Henry Herford, who has three Bampton festivals to his credit.

Much credit for the success and sheer fun of the occasion is due to the director Jeremy Gray's production which kept the drama alive, with witty touches to match Arthur Jacobs' comic rhymes, stylish choreography in the ensembles, and plenty of activity from minor characters, including a juggler. The conductor Simon Over maintained an intrepid pace throughout and was supported well despite a rather patchy string section.

Bampton's British revival of Storace's Comedy of Errors follows recent performances in Batignano and Wexford. Its qualities auger well for repeats within another opera festival - such as the Covent Garden festival - provided a professional orchestra may be found. And there is a case for a recording to fill a gap in the catalogues. Meanwhile, Bampton's Classical Opera is applauded for their adventurous spirit. Next year it is to stage The Philosopher's Stone, of which the UK concert premiere at the Hampstead and Highgate Festival 2000 was reviewed here by me recently.

Malcolm Miller