Bampton Classical Opera summer productions are staged al fresco in a delightful village deanery garden just south of Witney, Oxfordshire. No strimmers from grousing neighbours. Swallows, and later bats, flit. The adjacent church spire looms impressively. A solitary chestnut mare clops by. It’s take-your-own-seating and (optional) champagne. A tented gazebo prevents the orchestral sound getting diffused, focussing wind and brass – through marginally cramping the strings. Thanks to intelligent stage positioning and enfolding hedges, the voices carry well, despite a small measure of directional loss.
Rare 18th century fare is a Bampton speciality, and for this reason alone it deserves recognition. This year’s offering, Paisiello’s Nina, proved several notches up on last season’s visually good but marginally amateurish staging of Arne’s Alfred, whose vocal impact hinged largely on Michelle Harris’s gustily projected Prince Edward. Harris, who sang Nina here, has an assured stage presence and marked strengths in the mezzo range, slightly tailing off in upper registers in the title role’s Act 1 arias. Paisiello’s forlorn tale – reworked by his regular collaborator, Giambattista Lornezi, from a French original – of a girl driven mad by her father’s intransigence and her true love’s apparent demise in a duel (happily her reclaiming beau resurfaces to beef up Act 2 with some effective duets) is frankly sentimental stuff. It was first seen in 1789, Celeste Coltellini taking the title role, and retained its popular appeal for half a century, into the 1830’s. The lack of a sub-plot renders it a pretty monochrome melodrama, though the lightweight melodic charm Mozart admired in Paisiello (1740-1816) is certainly there in abundance.
Jeremy Gray’s tidy and compact production, imaginatively updated to a 1930’s hospital setting, worked well thanks to intelligent consistency in sets, props and costumes and a well-marshalled chorus impressively free of overacting. The extended recitative was fluently delivered, if occasionally a bit protracted. The opera’s main strength lay in some pithy second-half exchanges between Harris’s Nina and Howard Kirk as Lindoro, her restored boyfriend; in the pathetic gradual stages by which she comes to her senses and recognizes him; and in a pair of cheerfully sung arias from Justin Harmer as Giorgio, the excitable valet-chauffeur (a real 1934 Rolls Royce was drummed into service), and Amanda Pitt as Nina’s flustering governess, Susanna. The translation by Jeremy Gray and Gilly French, came across well. Guy Hopkins conducted.