a cast of bold dramatic range and beguiling musical gifts
Haydn’s La Vera Costanza, like Mozart’s Don Giovanni, is dubbed a ‘dramma giocoso’; and very jocund it is. Its score, composed for Esterhazy in 1778/9, was destroyed by fire, but revamped for further staging in 1785. Its quality ensembles and dramatic characterisation even invite comparison with Mozart’s Figaro, first staged a year later (1786); and it shares with Piccinni’s La Cecchina, Paisiello’s Nina (and even Mozart’s La Finta Giardiniera) a saintly dramatic heroine surmounting all ills – a fresh genre paving the way for Medea, Lucia, Amina (in La Sonnambula) and Norma.
This was arguably Bampton’s best staging yet. Co-producers Jeremy Gray and Gilly French engaged English National Opera’s gifted young staff director Alexander Clifton, whose acute sense of relevant detail already rivals David McVicar’s; and his ingenious production was much helped by the capable conducting and vivacious continuo of Murray Hipkin – another ENO regular – and a cast of bold dramatic range and beguiling musical gifts.
Despite a predictably Plautine, sub-Commedia dell’Arte story, La Vera Costanza, sung in Hipkin and French’s vivid, raunchily rhyming translation, hinged on real emotions and intense, tangible feelings. Central to this outwardly amiable tale of shipwrecked aristocrats rescued by humble fisherfolk – Haydn had already alighted here with the skimpier Le Pescatrici (1770) - are an attractive couple endowed with strong, passionate emotions : Rosina, the heroine, has bridged the social gap to have an affair with, and a child by, a wayward errant aristocrat, Errico - who is gradually drawn to embrace responsible domesticity, whatever the social consequences.
Serena Kay’s Rosina revealed both enchanting tone and a vital musical personality; while in the gun-toting Errico’s famous scena, graphically likening the pursuits of love to those of the chase, Huw Rhys-Evans, with equally gorgeous tone and engaging personality, brought the house down – although this being a garden event (the topiaried Deanery Garden at Bampton is one of Britain’s most idyllic opera settings) - the sky was our roof. Errico’s unwitting encounter with his tiny son (Joseph Allinson), and a path of flute obbligato as he yields to Rosina, were moving beyond words.
At one moment Clifton had six separate comic vignettes playing in subtle counterpoint : controlling these was the mark of a master. Costumes (from London’s National Theatre), were superbly apt; cast make-up was far superior to previous stagings; the placard-waving storm was hilarious; and Gray’s homespun designs - as ever - a delight. Haydn’s ensembles and finales emerged beautifully polished. Amanda Pitt confirmed her top register talents as the aristocratic patron; Nicholas Sharratt excelled in Ernesto’s Act II aria; Nicholas Merryweather, a memorable Bardolph in Bampton’s recent production of Salieri’s Falstaff, brought an astonishing range of gesture to his attractively toned fop, Villotto. Russian-born Ilona Domnich sings in clearer English than many a native speaker. The special bonus was tenor Brian Parsons in the role of Masino, the fisherman – an object lesson in how to pitch, project and moderate vibrato; rising young singers could learn much from this seasoned teacher about how to conserve their voices intelligently.