a perennial credit to Bampton’s casting

The Oxford Times, July 2012

Two evenings of perfect weather were Bampton Classical Opera’s reward for 20 years’ work unearthing 18th-century musical jewels (of various caratage), as summer finally arrived last weekend and the loyal audience was transported back to days of chirruping swifts accompanying the opera as the sun set on the golden church spire — one of the loveliest settings I know. This little company, which puts on a couple of shows in the idyllic Deanery garden in West Oxfordshire each summer, now also makes regular appearances at the Buxton Festival, the country’s most likeable and quirky summer opera jamboree.

And it explores a surprisingly neglected backwater: the question of what happened between Handel and Mozart — a great leap in sensibility and practice in a very short time — certainly rewards investigation. And having thoroughly excavated the Italian (and Spanish, and Portuguese) end of the market, Bampton has now turned its attention to the French.

The double bill of two short works by Philidor and Grétry were a glimpse into what kept ancien régime aristos entertained before they lost their heads. The two little anecdotes both involved that old standby of hiding in wardrobes and were both rather slender (one relying entirely on a misunderstanding of someone’s name), but there was lots to enjoy. The Philidor (Blaise le savetier, 1759) has a sweet rustic bounce and fresh momentum, with French curlicues decorating an Italian musical model, and was performed with wit and spirit by Martene Grimson and Robert Anthony Gardiner: both pieces rely on extended dialogue, not always opera singers’ strong suit, but carried off here with real actorly panache and charm. Grétry — who re-invented opéra comique in the way Gluck did tragedy — was more ambitious in L’amant jaloux (1778), loading on the local Spanish colour with a lovely oboe-and-pizzicato tune in the overture which reappears as a mandolin serenade at the crucial moment. Ensembles and arias ranging from jaunty to sentimental, livened up with cute wind-instrument twiddles, and finally, with a lovers’ duet, made you realise why setting words to music can go far beyond dialogue — the only way that opera can justify itself. Máire Flavin performed the regulation lippy maid with feisty charm; Aoife O’Sullivan, Oliver Mercer and Oliver Dunn joined Grimson and Gardiner to make up the lively ensemble.
As ever, this was a cast of young singers at the forefront of their generation, a perennial credit to Bampton’s casting; Andrew Griffiths kept the thing moving — and band and singers together in what is not the easiest layout — and Jeremy Gray delivered a trademark staging of pleasantly zany silliness and inspiration.

Robert Thicknesse