To general astonishment...
To general astonishment, Bampton's open-air opera took place beneath blue skies in a year which has shown up the mad optimism of such ventures. But such a feeling of well-being accompanies a hint of summer these days that, despite the risk of hypothermia attendant on a 10.30pm finish, it gave the production a good furlong start on any more mainstream staging. Not that there have been many of those: Stephen Storace's 1786 opera received its first and, till Friday, last English performance at the Camden Festival in 1974.
Storace was a friend of Mozart's who had great success in Vienna before returning to London in 1787. This opera first saw the light of day as Gli equivoci, was commissioned by Joseph II, has a libretto by none other than Lorenzo da Ponte - given here in a witty translation by Arthur Jacobs - was premiered at the Burgtheater in Vienna a few months after Figaro, and bears some resemblance to it.
Mistaken identity is of course the motor of most opera buffa and Shakespeare's play is its most extreme example - not enough for da Ponte, however, who introduced a wife for the Syracusan Dromio to perk things up. Whether or not Storace was Mozart's pupil he certainly learned from his friend, notably in his deft and delicate scoring for the wind band. The extended ensemble finales are brilliantly handled - one starting with a moment of stunned silence that anticipates Rossini and containing a fugue remarkably like the coda of the later Don Giovanni. There is an effective storm overture, some lovely arias (plus an unexpected Scottish song), a gorgeous soprano duet with basset-horn obbligato, a patter-song... it may not be Mozart, but it beats the pants off Salieri, Paisiello and Cimarosa. The forgotten Storace, like steak-and-kidney pudding, is a victim of the inverted snobbery of the English.
The young cast coped creditably with the score's demands, and Mark Saberton, Thomas Guthrie and Catherine Hamilton were outstanding as the twin servants and Adriana. The orchestra sits in a tent to the side of the stage; conductor Simon Over might have given the unsighted singers a bit more help, but he had his own troubles with a few anarchists who seemed to have taken advantage of the anything-so-long-as-it's-black dress code to infiltrate the violin section. The opera was set in a very Ottoman Ephesus (on a chessboard - neat idea) and the production, by Jeremy Gray, was lively and slick and not overdone.
All this takes place beneath the spire of Bampton church west of Oxford. You can pay more for less in more pretentious and far less pretty places. It's well worth having a look to see what they dig up for next year.