A fascinating evening
Opera, October 2008
Pierre Gaveaux’s French revolutionary opera Leonore ou L’Amour conjugal, which appeared at the Theatre feydeau in 1798, and was published, had three successors in 1804-5: Ferdinando Paer’s Leonora ossia L’amore conjugale in Dresden in October; Beethoven’s Leonore oder Die eheliche Liebe at the Theater an der Wien a month later (the title Beethoven wanted, though the management changed it to Fidelio); and Simone Mayr’s L’amore conjugale in Padua in July. Paer’s Leonora had a Viennese private performance at the Lobkowitz Palace in 1806, and 12 performances (in German translation) at the Burgtheater in 1809-10. Beethoven attended, and scholars have speculated whether it may have influenced his 1814 revision of Leonore into the familiar Fidelio. After a live encounter with Paer’s opera, my conclusion is that it probably did – but chiefly in confirming the composer’s convictions about what not to do, what to avoid, when refashioning his own great, serious opera.
This was the first British performance of Paer’s work. Attending a Bampton performance is often essential for enthusiasts, but it’s not for the faint-hearted. No way of getting there except by motoring is listed on its website (whereas Glyndebourne is reachable, and indeed encourages access, by public transport). If we wish to sit during the performance, we are instructed to bring our own chairs. (Garsington provides tiered seating, some shelter from the British summer, and picnic tents and tables). So we lugged our chairs to the Deanery lawn, umbrellas in readiness (but there was only a drop or two on the first night), and on a cold, damp evening shivered beneath rugs and shawls as we prepared to enjoy the opera.
Enjoy it we did. Bampton Classical Opera offers operas that one wants to hear, albeit in modest stagings. Arne’s Alfred, Benda’s Romeo und Julie, Gazzaniga’s Don Giovanni, Salieri’s Falstaff figure in its annals. Promising young singers appear in its casts. Paer’s Leonora began well. The overture, led by Robin Newton, was eloquent. So was the prelude to the second act, and many another instrumental contribution in a score remarkable for its varied obbligatos. The orchestra played in a tent to the right of the stage whence the players couldn’t see the singers, and they occasionally lost contact. Bampton’s open-air acoustics, entirely without resonance, are curious. The first impression may suggest an acoustic recording played on a portable gramophone; but the ear swiftly attunes, and then welcomes an honesty of excellently audible sound. Paer’s instrumental inventiveness was again and again striking. Everything was clearly heard.
And the sung drama began well: Marcellina and Giacchino’s opening utterances were delivered, by Emily Rowley Jones and Samuel Evans, with every word clear. Bampton knows that opera ‘makes sense’ when the listeners understand what the singers are saying. Verbal communicativeness continued to inform the Bampton performance. Cara McHardy, the Leonora, though underpowered in the heroine’s biggest moments, didn’t push into stridency, and she matched Marcellina well in the flibbertigibbet flights that Paer write for them. Michael Bracegirdle was the Florestan, Adrian Powter the Rocco, Jonathan Stoughton the Pizarro (a tenor, with no aria), and John Upperton the Don Fernando. The action, directed by Jeremy Gray, was shifted from Spain to revolutionary Paris, and Gray was also the designer; his back-of-stage guillotine won a laugh when it made its first chippy-chippy-chop descent. The English translation, by Gilly French and Gray, had some Gilbertian rhymed moments but sang fluently and matched Paer’s music well enough, except when Rocco sang a jarring ‘OK’ and ‘get cracking’.
Most of Paer’s numbers begin well. The arias for Leonora and for Florestan are large-scale bigger than those in Beethoven’s opera; and the introduction to Florestan’s is particularly striking. (‘Paer at his least insipid’, Winton Dean called it.) Most of the numbers – though not these two – fail to sustain interest, go on too long, are extended by cliché. It was a fascinating evening, honestly, decently and ambitiously performed: a page of musical history brought to life, a first encounter that for opera-goers with long memories recalled the rewarding St Pancras adventures long ago.