a radiant whole

Opera Today, 20 September 2009

Bampton Classical Opera have two areas of specialism: little-known gems of the late eighteenth-century and ‘opera in adversity’.

Whether it’s downpours and blackouts in the Oxfordshire countryside which force a retreat to a candlelit church, or indisposed singers who compel director Jeremy Gray himself to tread the boards (Benda’s Romeo and Juliet, 2007) or require a student drama student to read the text for a miming singer (Schubert’s The Conspirators, 2009), Bampton Classical Opera must sometimes feel that the Fates are against them. Critics have rightly noted that the company “deserves a prize for quirky, courageous planning” but one might also add that they excel in spontaneous and creative ‘damage limitation’! For this performance of Haydn’s seldom-performed dramma giocoso, Le Pescatrici, the late indisposition of the leading tenor, Andrew Friedhoff (Burlotto), necessitated some rapid re-imagining: in the event, Friedhoff was able to sing the recitative, his arias were excised, and Burlotto’s contributions to the ensembles were delivered by Philip Salmon from the front of the orchestral area. An unfussy solution, and one which scarcely disrupted the musical and dramatic rhythm and logic — indeed, if it had not been for the appearance of Salmon on the platform at the curtain, to receive his well-deserved applause, I suspect many in the audience would not have noticed anything unusual or amiss …

Haydn’s reputation may rest largely on his body of instrumental works, including the 104 symphonies and over 80 string quartets, but vocal music and vocal aesthetics were at the heart of his musical and personal identity throughout his career. His early vocal training was crucial to the formation of his style, as he became familiar with the vocally-based, sensual strands in German musical thought in the early 1750s, singing simple tunes to his father’s harp, training with the choir at St Stephen’s cathedral in Vienna, studying the ‘instrumental arias’ of C.P.E. Bach and the vocal compositions of the great Italian masters. It is therefore not surprising that everything Haydn wrote, even the most complex ideas, ‘sings’ so effortlessly and beautifully.

Despite, or perhaps because of, Haydn’s own concern that the relative isolation of the Esterháza palace would be detrimental to his compositional development, he was familiar with the most up-to-date trends and fashions in vocal music, well aware of the niceties of the Italian operatic tradition within which he worked. Moreover, in keeping with the contemporary aesthetic theory espoused by Rousseau and others, Le Pescatrici has relatively simple plot, with few incidents but many opportunities to explore the characters’ psychological depths and motivations. The context of the first performance — a celebration of the noble wedding of Prince Nicholas Esterházy’s niece, the Countess von Lamberg, and his Highness the Count of Poggi, staged in a new 400-seat opera house built by the extravagant Prince — led to small alternations being made to Goldoni’s play. Haydn’s opera, in which true nobility and aristocratic grace win through, and the fickle peasant classes are exposed as greedy and presumptuous, was a perfect parable for the occasion.

Two feckless fisher girls, Nerina and Lesbina, are each engaged to the other’s brother, Burlotto and Frisellino respectively. But, desirous of more wealthy and illustrious husbands, they are excited by the arrival of Prince Lindoro; he is seeking the rightful heir to the throne of Benevento, whose identity was concealed at birth during a violent coup. Each of the fortune-hunting girls immediately sets about convincing Lindoro that they are the true claimant, to the annoyance of their suitors. Mastricco, a worldly old fisherman, knows better, however; for it is the demure, gentle Eurilda, his supposed daughter, who is the rightful inheritor. Despite the enterprising efforts of the flighty fisher girls, true nobility shines through and justice is restored. But not before the spurned young men seize the opportunity to humiliate their capricious fiancées with a ‘Così-like’ trick: disguising themselves as the well-bred cousins of Lindoro, they woo their ladies (in this case, their own, to avoid any incestuous advances!) by promising them untold riches and luxury. When the ruse is exposed, it is Mastricco who must step in to restore order and harmony.

The imposing Baroque interior of St John’s Smith Square may lack some of the lavish opulence of the original venue, but this mattered not as the sets designed by Mike Wareham and Anthony Hall swept us far from twilight London to the idyllic Italian south, depositing us in the small fishing village of Taranto. An aquamarine gleam imbued all, illuminating a picture-perfect coastal backdrop; and what with the brightly painted fish-stalls and sun-bleached beach huts — with obligatory sea-gull perched aloft — one could almost forget the evening’s decidedly autumnal chill. This was a fresh, uncluttered set, but one which offered many an opportunity for Jeremy Gray’s typically deft visual witticisms — not least the changing theatre bills which reminded us of Le Pescatrici’s operatic ‘relations’, La Cenerentola and Così fan tutte.

A fire at the Esterháza opera house in 1779 resulted in the loss of almost one third of the score. Several significant scenes in Acts 1 and 2 are missing and when the opera was staged at Garsington in 1997, a prize of £2000 was offered for the “best restoration of missing parts”! Bampton adopted the more conventional approach of using the reconstruction made in 1965 by the esteemed Haydn scholar, H.C. Robbins Landon.

The replacement numbers for Act 1 and Act 2 are certainly in keeping with the lyrical, serenade-like idiom of Haydn’s original sections. However, the necessary excision of Burlotto’s mock-heroic first aria and the rather uniform mood, mode and timbre of the sequence of opening arias, resulted in a lack of variety at the start of Act 1; thus, while an atmosphere of delight and relaxation was created, characterisation was not firmly established in musical terms, although subsequent arias, particularly those for Lesbina and Nerina in Act 2, were more strikingly individual. What was apparent, from the opening bars of the overture, was that the London Mozart Players were on fine form, under the baton of Alice Farnham. In particular, the sweet, warm woodwind colours, à la divertimento, as in the tender introduction to the second scene, evoked the gentle, lazy heat of the Italian sunshine.

Throughout, the ensemble between the orchestra and singers was superb; two large television screens proved an effective means of overcoming one of the inherent problems of the venue, where the necessity of placing orchestral players behind the singers can hinder effective communication between conductor and cast. One might have wished for a little more energy and sprightlier tempi from Farnham in the ensembles, particularly in the Act 1 finale, with its gradual accumulation of musical and dramatic urgency, but overall the structure was well-judged. The continuo playing of Kelvin Lim was particularly noteworthy, skilfully creating dramatic momentum and continuity in the recitatives.

Supported by such an assured orchestral platform, it was the leading ladies who sparkled most brightly. Bampton regulars, Emily Rowley Jones (Lesbina) and Serena Kay (Nerina), pouted and pranced, flounced and flirted convincingly, both sopranos relishing the humour and sustaining the verve and energy. After some initial intonation problems, Rowley Jones settled into the role, negotiating both the pompous coloratura and deflating patter (thereby exposing the falsity of her claims and revealing her humdrum roots) in her Act 2 aria with confidence and assurance. Kay used her upper range particularly effectively.

In the role of Eurilda, Margaret Rapacioli certainly presented an effective contrast to the flightiness of the other fisher girls; the simplicity of Eurilda’s melodies reminds one of the classical grace and dignity of Gluck, but although she conveyed an appropriate dramatic serenity and sincerity, Rapacioli did not quite possess the sustained lyricism of line and depth of tone necessary to express the integrity and graciousness of Eurilde.

Mark Chaundy, as Frisellino, demonstrated a nimbleness of movement and lightness of voice, just right for this simple, undemanding young lover; while bass Robert Winslade Anderson was an appealing Mastricco. The expansive range required in his Act 1 aria posed some challenges, particularly at the top, but his consistently excellent diction more than compensated, to which he needed only a few economic visual and physical gestures to deftly convey both the wisdom and mischief of the wily old fisherman. Given the consistency of the soloists, it was a pity, therefore, that baritone Vojtech Safarik (Lindoro) seemed less assured. Under-powered vocally, rather stiff physically, and with little variety of tone, Safarik tended to shout when a forte was required; he was somewhat overshadowed in the ensembles, which had the unfortunate effect of diminishing the opera’s emphasis on the power and dignity of the ‘nobility’.

But, overall this was a well-matched cast. Caroline Kennedy and Rosa French, as decorative bellezze al bagno, enhanced the comic spirit. And, in the ensembles, particularly the Act 1 finale and the tranquil farewell to Lindoro and Eurilda, the voices blended into a radiant whole.

In his public statements about his oeuvre, Haydn consistently placed his vocal works ahead of his instrumental compositions. This performance, which conveyed the company’s genuine belief in the opera’s merits and which perfectly straddled the line between irony and sincerity, certainly suggested that a reassessment of Haydn’s operatic achievement is long overdue.

Claire Seymour