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Bampton Classical Opera, near Oxford, England, always proves one of the most enjoyable, unmissable events of an English Summer.
Why should this be? Gilly French and Jeremy Gray founded this joyous, inspired company in 1993: its thirtieth anniversary will fall next year. Its staged operas are invariably sung in English, nearly always in their own lively, hilarious and brilliant new translations.
This year Bampton are staging not one, but two operas: one as usual in mid-July, late August and early September (the last, in London), What we saw and heard - and relished - this summer was Haydn's Il mondo della luna. Bampton has produced numerous stellar productions, but this - the first of Haydn's operas to be staged (in 1776) at Esterházy, Hungary (where he was employed from 1766 until 1790), which they with typical cleverness renamed 'Fool Moon' - was definitely one of their best.
However also this September (see below) will come a staging of Handel's previously lost and 'magnificent' 1707 comic-pastoral cantata, Clori, Tirsi e Fileno, written during the young composer's 1706-10 sojourn in Italy.
Bampton's priority is breathing life into forgotten eighteenth-century repertoire, the bulk of it ignored by the UK's major companies, in lively, relaxed, mostly outdoor, jovial and accessible productions of exceptional musical standards at a manageable price, with some of the best of the country's young singers. Likewise gifted conductors, many starting out on their careers.
In their convivial settings over three decades they have ferreted out countless gems, like the Spaniard Vicente Martín y Soler's La capricciosa corretta (written for London with libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte; its composer was much admired by Mozart); young Stephen Storace's The Twins - after Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors (again, libretto by Da Ponte, and also a beloved protégé of Mozart). Brilliantly, Salieri's superb, Verdi-rivalling Falstaff; the bass title role played by the magnificent Mark Saberton, then a Bampton regular; Mozart, Schikaneder and friends' The Philosopher's Stone; Nicolas Isouard's Cinderella; Georg (Jiří) Benda's Romeo and Juliet - embracing in total ten or more UK premieres.
Gilly French and Jeremy Gray have set an enviable and outstanding pattern by giving a first break to singers and (here) conductors who now have world reputations. Edward Gardner (no less: ENO, CBSO, Norway, now LPO); Christian Curnyn (with Laurence Cummings, the outstanding British baroque specialist); Paul Wingfield (now Head of the Vocal Department at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire); Jason Lai (formerly assistant at the BBC Philharmonic); the cheerfully extrovert Australian Alexander Briger, nephew of Sir Charles Mackerras; Simon Over (who founded the celebrated Southbank Sinfonia for young (post-Music College) players in 2002, and directs the Anghiara Festival near Arezzo in Tuscany, Italy); ENO's Murray Hipkin (who acted as this year's Haydn's repetiteur, possibly in London rehearsals), Robin Newton, who merits far more recognition; and the grandfather of them all, David Owen Norris. Quite a list. But Bampton, year on year, has a gift for winkling out talent.
The story of Il mondo della luna is yet another of the fifty-plus opera libretti by the (much-set) playwright Carlo Goldoni. (Haydn used I think three, but Il mondo, or texts poached from it, was used by over half a dozen other composers.) It's about a crazed, addled pseudo-philosopher (Bonafede - baritone Jonathan Eyers) whom, being excessively obsessed with telescopes and things planetary, a gathering of his family and friends manage to kid that he has indeed travelled to the moon. Much humour follows, wonderfully and bizarrely captured in Jeremy Gray's as usual ingenious production (as both director and designer).
In short, it's a giggle from start to finish in this joyous, beautifully sung staging. One of the special things about Bampton's idyllic garden setting - gloriously apt for picnics - at the old Deanery in that charming village is that, with the help of some perfectly placed background box bushes, every word bounces back and can be heard. For once, no surtitles are needed for texts in English. Another top benefit is Bampton's own orchestra, which has got better and better over the years as players enthusiastically choose to return: indeed some of them wouldn't miss it for anything.
Here, under Thomas Blunt, who has an astounding CV at the highest levels, and who drew some of the best, spot-on precise comic bonbons - indeed teasing merrymaking - I have yet heard from Bampton's orchestra. Woodwind exciting as a full section, in ensemble or in numerous obbligati - no clarinets at this point, of course. Every time the bassoon intervenes, such as following Bonafede's snappy first aria, there was a special tingle. The strings were especially brilliant in several pianissimi (actually even better - quadruple piano) that Blunt held them to, and hilarious music for the 'flight', for instance; quite spectacular, or rather lulling - preceding the duet between Ecclitico - originally an alto, but later altered by Haydn to a tenor - and Flaminia. Or the amazingly original, all but daring Overture to Act II. Almost exotic horns, important roles for cellos with or without double bass support: it was all there. And who said Haydn couldn't write decent operas? (Bampton have specialised in Haydn and rare Gluck: good for them.) Here Haydn's deftness and wit could just as easily be Mozart.
It was all classic Bampton: if anything, it confirmed that Bampton never fails. They have instigated (in Oxford) a Singing Competition that has drawn entries from across the globe - almost like Cardiff. And it scores nearly always with its casts, some of whom likewise are frequently invited back.
Most of the time, of course, the orchestra is employed supporting recitatives and arias, sometimes forcibly, at other times delicately: both ends of the scale reinforced the drama superbly. Cheeky Cecco's arias (Sam Harris), posing ludicrously as Emperor of the moon (to Bonafede: 'Here you have no authority'), his role being to prevent Bonafede banning his two daughters' marriages. (The nutty enterprise actually succeeds: Leopold Dichter, Esterháza's original Cecco, sang an amazing sixty operas there between 1766 and 1788.)
There's also a gorgeous piano aria, and another marvellously witty showstopper later on, for Ernesto, one of the suitors, masquerading as Hesperus, the Evening Star, and supplying a bewitching travesti role for Catherine Backhouse; some glorious coloratura for Margo Arsane (Lisetta, the maid), who moves enticingly (maybe Movement Director Karen Halliday had a hand in it); and goes on to another stupendous, two-part, aria in Act II.
But so it went on ... and on. The bosomy Flaminia's big aria (sung by Siân Dicker), strikingly confident and assured in Act I, beautifully on target in highest register (plus another for Flaminia in Act II); moreover a glorious - essentially recitative - duet for the two (non-competing) sisters. Jonathan Eyers' Bonafede memorably encompassed those recitatives, so they emerged almost like extra arias; and a hoot (pun) in what Haydn offers as a fluttery 'bird' aria ('Che mondo amabile' in Italian). He hadn't the dottiness of the enthralling Rodney (Earl) Clarke's dazzling Bonafede at the Royal Academy, but he carried off the role, especially that fine, polished recitative, adroitly. Every one of Haydn's arias felt fresh, inventive, with a delicious comic sense. And Gilly French's often rhyming English libretto (sample: 'lunar ... sooner') was aerated and so well devised as to give all the cast the chance to excel.
I haven't (shame!) mentioned Nathan Vale, Ecclitico, a spoof astronomer - his name very nearly means 'eclipse' - in starry headgear, who played a key role in the lunar duping of the kiddable Bonafede. (The aide's name virtually means 'gullible'.) I have previously, when he was still quite young, in English song, deemed his voice to be a little light, and lacking in force. But certainly - except perhaps in his opening aria here - what we heard from Nathan was much more than that: one might call it full-voiced, a beautiful tone (that was always the case), sweet, charming, and able to bestride moments of strongish orchestral accompaniment. A pleasure, in short. Haydn writes one rather scintillating duet for Vale's Ecclitico with the other daughter, Flaminia's more wilful sister Clarice (Iúnó Connolly), who fielded another delicious voice, though slightly puzzlingly retained her green moonskirt when earth was finally revisited.
Put all together in a Mozart-anticipating full-bodied Finale (all seven wondrously spirited), and one has a musical experience of staggering high quality.
But of course the other thing to be mentioned - and praised to the skies - is Jeremy Gray's direction (on a relatively compact stage; perhaps some experimentation with apron might not dislodge the audience unduly); and his - as so often - utterly surprising, original and inspired props, which captured the zany quality of this barmy tale so perfectly. (His moon was scintillatingly realistic: how appropriately he supplied, as usual, such an entertaining background.)
There was loads of ingenuity here. Moves were constantly well-plotted. Gray's telescope - and the use of it - was a scream, as was much more of the paraphernalia. An old-fashioned (Edwardian?; Victorian?) wheelchair made an entrance. Gray imported - as 'moon nymphs' (clad in Apollo astronaut white attire, a cheeky innovation) - two dancers, both exquisite (Harriet Cameron, Tilly Goodwin), who neatly and expertly raised a laugh each time they appeared. In fact Gray's delaying of their exit at the very end - I think he contrived that earlier, too - till all the rest had gone off was, well, in my book, a touch of genius.
There was more dancing, perhaps a little inhibited by the taut stage. The gear (including astronaut's bubble-shaped helmet) Bonafede was laden with to launch his moonshot to the Sea of Tranquillity - conveniently the moon's dark, or less illuminated side - was so hilarious one gasped with amazement, although countless previous Bampton productions have been as clever visually. Some potty antics with a tiny plane (spaceship) greatly amused.
A green sceptre glowed - all the characters by an impressive quick change now being green (green cheese?), the wardrobe here by Pauline Smith and Anne Baldwin - nursed of course by Gray, each scene aptly lit (and accurately timed) by Bampton's regular lighting operator Ian Chandler, who was at the back just behind the audience and me. Maidservant Lisetta, crowned as Cecco's Empress, played artfully along with this ubiquitous nonsense. And Bonafede of course ultimately concedes.
In their pre-publicity, Gilly French and Jeremy Gray effectively apologised for performing one of Haydn's better-known operas this summer. (The same might be said for his Le pescatrici - 'The Fisherwomen' - done by Garsington in Leonard Ingrams' day.) But no apology is needed. The fun and the craziness were perfect for Bampton's grateful and appreciative audience. They will continue to unearth hidden gems, and their gift for turning these into massively entertaining productions will - one hopes - not cease.
This September, as mentioned, they will embark on a second staging, Handel's Virgil-sounding pastoral extravaganza Clori (in Latin nominally the Goddess of flowers), Tirso (a shepherd) e Fileno (not, my huge Lewis and Short Latin dictionary tells me, precisely translatable, but Philemon was an elderly kind-hearted rustic). It'll hit some new venues: Wadhurst (East Sussex) and Woking (Surrey). No need to wish them good luck: Bampton always delivers, and no doubt they will again.
Copyright © 11 August 2022