genuine enjoyment and engagement

Opera Today, 29 July 2009

Performances by Bampton Classical Opera are typically noteworthy for two principal aspects: first, the company repeatedly presents classical-period rarities which surprise and delight, and second, they do so with wit, energy and musico-dramatic vision, often employing quirky, fresh translations.

These concert performances of two little-known ‘pre-reform’ works by Gluck - La danza (1755) and Le cinesi (1754) - on the small stage at the Wigmore Hall certainly confirmed the company’s commitment to undeservedly neglected works of the early classical period, and consistently high musical standards served to convince the audience of the merit and beauty of these unfamiliar treasures.

Before he had the good fortune, at almost 50 years-of-age, to become acquainted with the group of ‘reformers’ gathered at the Viennese court - theatre Intendant, Count Durazzo; poet, Raniero de Calzabigi; choreographer, Angiolini; and designer, Quaglio — Gluck was a moderately successful composer of Metastasian opera seria. His reputation today derives largely from his status as ‘reformer’ - as exemplified by his later, innovative, operas, Orfeo ed Euridice, Alceste and the two stories of Iphigénie.

The Preface to Alceste (1767) set forth the new operatic creed. Gluck professed his desire to diminish the pre-eminence of the voice as a virtuoso solo instrument, to create greater continuity of design, and to unite the dramatic action with the emotional expression of the musical score. However, as the esteemed musicologist Winton Dean has remarked, ‘[t]here never was a “reformer” so little in advance of his age and so perfectly adapted to swimming with the current rather than against it’. Gluck certainly had no inherent distaste for the traditional Italian vocal style. For more than twenty-years he had been purveying ‘old-style’ opera seria in the courts of Europe, and indeed he did not abandon the genre after the success of Orfeo (1762), going on to set three more libretti by Metastasio in the 1760s. But, while he may not have been a radical, preferring to ‘lead from behind’, Gluck clearly recognised a good opportunity when he saw one — and it is this practical awareness of musical and dramatic context, coupled with the ability to maximise his own skills, which is equally evident in these two ‘pre-reform’ works. Like his later operas, they are both characterised by a supreme feeling for melody, a sure sense of balance, and by a keen ear for instrumental colour and texture.

La danza is typical of Gluck’s operas in that it presents a mythological situation as a vehicle for making general declarations about human nature. Composed in 1755 for the birthday of the future Emperor Leopold II, it presents a conversation between the delightful nymph, Nice, who is required to dance at a forthcoming festival, and her beloved, the shepherd, Tirsi, who fears that her beauty will undoubtedly attract other suitors and lead inevitably to her infidelity. In a sequence of alternating arias, the lovers - whose romance must, for reasons not disclosed, be kept secret - discourse on love and jealousy, fear and betrayal, honesty and faithfulness, closing with a rather inconclusive duet (repeated, perhaps to lend greater conviction to its sentiments …) in which they both declare, ‘I was born to yearn — for you alone’ (‘Per te sola … io son nato a sospirar’).

Originally described as a ‘componimento drammatico pastorale’, this short work is in fact distinctly lacking in dramatic development or momentum; but, nevertheless, the debate between the suspicious shepherd and the self-composed nymph ranges through various emotional and human dilemmas, and the lyricism and sincerity of the vocal lines is enhanced by an array of instrumental colours and textures - the cor anglais, oboes and horns which suggest Tirsi’s anxiety and forthrightness in the opening aria, giving way to gentle string colours, tinted by the bassoon, to complement Nice’s protestation of fidelity and steadfastness. The Bampton Classical Players, performing on period instruments and led from the harpsichord by Christian Curnyn, provided sensitive and alert support throughout; while the instrumental parts lack contrapuntal interest, the context does not in fact require it, and colour and timbre introduce a dramatic element.

The two principals, Martene Grimson (Nice) and Nicholas Sharratt (Tirsi), proved themselves equally adept at attaining the ‘beautiful simplicity’ which Gluck declared to be his aspiration. Sharratt’s rich, warm, lower register suitably conveyed the shepherd’s earnestness and concern, and he skilfully applied appropriate nuance to particular textual phrases to add weight and dimension to the sketched character. While her articulation of the Italian text was less precise, Grimson confidently tackled a virtuosic part; at the top of her range her voice has an impressive accuracy, clarity and attack, which she employed to convey the nymph’s insistent assertions of her honesty and dependability, and she nimbly despatched the rapid passage work.

Despite the fact that the work is in essence a simple cantata, it was perhaps a shame that the two soloists preferred to sing directly to the audience, rather than to each other, Grimson remaining quite self-contained even in the final duet. The two music-stands, isolated to the right and left of the conductor, exacerbated the absence of dramatic engagement, which was a pity since the gentle, tender interchanges between the two characters were serenely and affectively sung.

There was more dramatic vitality post-interval in Le cinesi, composed by Gluck for a festival in 1754. In that year, Empress Maria Theresa had appointed Gluck opera Kapellmeister to the court theatre in Vienna, a post which required him to compose in the livelier, more flexible style of the fashionable French opéras comiques. The composer put his familiarity with various operatic styles and conventions to good use in this opera - a forerunner in the genre of ‘opera about opera’. The scenario is trivial but charming and concise. Three ‘Chinese’ ladies, wile away a tedious evening, confined to the women’s quarters, when they are surprisingly joined by an illicit male interloper from Europe. As romantic attractions begin to surface, they determine to pass the time by play-acting, each of the ladies selecting a different genre - seria, pastorale and buffa. The lone male, Silango, is charged with judging the various merits of the contrasting styles, and their performers. After much melodramatic self-advertisement, flirtatious coquetry and jealous sniping, Silango tactfully suggests that the ladies should abandon their dramatic aspirations and put all their energies into dancing.

First performed in 2008, this production was recently revived at the 2009 Cheltenham festival, and the four soloists slipped quickly and effectively into their roles. Metastasio is not known for his sense of humour - indeed, this is his only ‘comic’ libretto; but the singers made much of the potential for caricature and irony, although some of the anachronisms of Murray Hipkin’s new translation were a little grating. Lina Markeby conveyed the moral self-righteousness and pomposity of the haughty Lisinga to great effect; Tom Raskin was a raffish Silango, suave and confident; while Serena Kay pouted and preened as the feisty Tangia, envious of Silango’s regard for the serene beauty of Sivene (Martene Grimson). The demands, technical and musical, of the long da capo arias, delivered by each principal in turn, are not inconsiderable, but they presented few obstacles to these performers, and Christian Curnyn effectively ensured that dramatic pace and momentum were sustained. Grimson was perhaps feeling the effects of having to perform two demanding roles in one evening for, while she rose to the challenges at the climax of her aria, some of her passage work was a little ragged, with intonation and rhythmic accuracy less than secure. But, overall, the sense of genuine enjoyment and engagement which all the soloists conveyed made one long to see the fully staged production revived once more.

Once again, a performance by Bampton Classical Opera left this listener amazed that such works are not more frequently performed, and convinced that there must be a wealth of unfamiliar repertoire from the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries that deserves to be resurrected and celebrated — certainly when historical integrity and musical standards are as high as this.

Claire Seymour