... first class

Opera, September 2012

In her feature on Bampton in the July issue (pp804-8) Fiona Maddocks cited earlier praise in these pages – ‘a serious business with remarkable artistic standards’.  Quite so, which, allied to the welcome absence of formality of dress or show-off picnics and the beauty of the Deanery garden, sends it right to the top of my list of, well, ‘country-garden’ opera.

This delightful opéra-comique double bill of Philidor and Grétry respectively was both enjoyable and instructive.  How to tell a story through a mixture of words and music?  At a basic level, one way is to ensure that cues between the two are instantly picked up, which they were, one of the best features of Jeremy Gray’s amiable and unpretentious productions, given his own (ditto, ditto) translations.  Formal arias are few in number, so the action moves forward, briskly, seamlessly.  The Philidor tells of the impoverished cobbler and his wife outwitting their rapacious landlords, the Pinces; the Grétry is a case of mistaken identity, and you can’t hep feeling that Mozart must have heard it in Paris – the wrong person emerging from a closet and exactly the same rhythm in everyone’s reactions is perhaps a coincidence too far.

Musical standards were first-class; the company orchestra played quite beautifully for Andrew Griffiths in music that may look simple on the page (it isn’t) but which offers many opportunities to imaginative players and conductor.  The tented band was to one side of the stage area, and the singers were sometimes quite distant from physical abd confidence-building orchestral support, in which respect they all deserve praise for the security of their tuning and ensemble.  There was some excellent singing, especially from three fine sopranos. Aoife O’Sullivan doubled as the landlord’s wife in the Philidor and Léonore in the Grétry, absolutely secure and well-tuned in her show-off coloratura aria in the latter.  The same must be said of Martene grimson as the mistake-identity Isabelle and the cobbler’s wife.  Máire Flavin not only sang beautifully but was also richly comic as a savvy maid from across the Irish Sea in the Grétry.

Oliver Dunn was outstanding amongst the gentlemen as the heavy father in the Grétry, beautifully warm sound, clear diction and a confident stage manner.  Robert Anthony Gardiner as the cobbler made the most of the bravura aria in which he pretends to the landlord concealed in a cupboard that he is abusing his (absent) wife, supplying her pained reaction in falsetto – one of Philidor’s best numbers; he was also properly impulsive as Grétry’s jealous lover.  The tenor liver Mercer was both the landlord and the French officer Florival – towards the end of the evening he had the exquisite Serenade, but was placed (unnecessarily) some distance from his mandolin accompanist and, starting to tire, occasionally faltered in pitch. And why was he made to look so scruffy in Gray’s production, which updated the action to the 20th century?  Odd.  The Philidor was staged in period but, with its beady-eyed view of rapacious landlords, could have benefited from updating.  That might not have gone down well with Bampton Classical Opera’s patron, the local MP, one David Cameron.

Rodney Milnes