VIDEO PODCAST: John Dante Prevedini leads a discussion about Youth Involvement in Classical Music - this specially extended illustrated feature includes contributions from Christopher Morley, Gerald Fenech, Halida Dinova, Patricia Spencer and Roderic Dunnett.
Bampton is where opera runs hilarious riot. Each production is clever, funny, insinuating, always ingenious. It has its own style, and it's one that its audience, newcomers or regulars, loves.
This summer's plum performance is (again) Salieri: the UK premiere of his comic opera La Fiera di Venezia, translated as 'At the Venice Fair'. Antonio Salieri has served Bampton well; or to put it the other way, Bampton has served Salieri superbly. But that's not a surprise: every time Bampton mounts one of its daft, barmy, potty operas, it achieves a hit. Aficianados in England have probably all heard of Bampton, who are celebrating their thirtieth anniversary this year; but for those from abroad who venture during July to catch opera in Britain, it's well worth putting Bampton in your diary as well. You won't be disappointed, and are likely to be intrigued and bemused by its originality and ingenuity.
A double feast for visitors: in conjunction with a revealing exhibition in the early seventeenth century old Grammar School, Bampton has issued in full colour a beautifully produced and typically jolly book featuring many of its productions, replete with vivid and juicy photos.
The memories it evokes are a delight. Not just Haydn and modest hints of Mozart (including a scintillating early Così with Turkish disguise costumes worthy of Seraglio), but - can you believe it - Menotti (a departure). Arne (Alfred they proved is a dazzling work), Paisiello twice (scintillating attire); plus one of their best, Czech (Bohemian) Georg (Jiří) Benda - a Romeo and Juliet nobody knows, unlike Bellini or Gounod; Zingarelli plus a host of others is conceivably to come); Schubert (based on Aristophanes' Lysistrata); and yes, Salieri, including his irresistible Falstaff and surely Così-related The Grotto of Trofonius - Trofonio, a name pinched from Greek mythology. Add Isouard, Philidor, Paer and Martin y Soler. The range of their repertoire is truly astonishing - bold, innovative, exemplary. We owe Bampton a great deal.
Early on they perceptively launched the careers of enticing opera singers like tenor Mark Wilde, Thomas Guthrie (also a director) and Mark Saberton (their blustering World War II Falstaff); Rebecca Bottone, Aoife O'Sullivan, Huw Rhys-Evans, fireball Australian conductor Alexander Briger (related to another supporter, Sir Charles Mackerras), Edward Gardner, pioneering a route to English National Opera; plus a real comic, crackpot, home-grown baritone, Nicholas Merryweather, who has gone on via Germany to an international career. Most recently, after triumphing at the Guildhall School, and more than ten outings for Bampton (starting out as a teenager with Storace's The Twins (Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors), he's been dispensing his notorious, masterly, stage-stealing liveliness across France in - of all things - an opera by Purcell's predecessor Matthew Locke - and, a natural Papageno, Merryweather has tickled audiences with Tobias Picker's Fantastic Mister Fox and made them shiver with Maxwell Davies' The Lighthouse. Sometimes they field, to added advantage, notably experienced performers, such as early on, Henry Herford (Paisiello's Nina); and (this year) Philip Sheffield.
And something else to celebrate, the English summer permitting, it's performed out of doors, in an utterly enchanting garden (of a former vicarage or deanery). It always looks good, feels good, and turns out vocally enhanced shows, not least because a large - one might almost say giant - box tree hedge looms behind the stage, reflecting the sound of singers, chorus (if there is one, here a small ensemble of four), and its orchestra (Bampton always turns out some notably proficient, often youngish instrumental players; one might say, artistes, each pretty perfect.) Bampton's a real feel-good place to see and hear opera.
And maybe above all, it buzzes with life. Operas are sung not in Italian, but in natty, often rhyming and deliberately corny English translations by Gilly French, one half of the deft and incredibly clever founding artistic team, and herself an accomplished and equally exploratory choral conductor. The other half, Jeremy Gray, is the director and designer.
The wit expended on these lunatic visuals is quite simply a hoot. Here, typically teasing views of Rialto, sometimes smelly canal-lapped Venice, on eye-catching boards like advertising hoardings. And the stagings - well, they're a hoot too. Late on one of the bizarrest, insane scenes - Bampton is synonymous with bizarre - sees the entire cast turn up sporting gondola-mimicking headdresses like Aristophanes' The Birds. By then, one wonders what zanier idea will turn up next. A hit for the props constructors.
Praise for Bampton hails from the highest sources. Sir Roger Norrington perceptively praises it as 'incredibly adventurous - thirty years of discovery, creation and realisation'. Sir David Pountney, noting its 'brilliantly curated, original programmes' adds 'Bampton has made a real contribution to the opera landscape in the UK'. Several applaud the contribution of 'this pearl of a company' to setting young singers (and conductors) on their path - to nurture emerging talent in 'what can be a difficult and fragile profession'. Its uniqueness, as it enters 'its fourth decade' (senior tenor Bonaventura Bottone), will be, as ever, to 'delve deep into forgotten classical era repertory'. They have, Norrington adds wrily and amusingly, 'about 8,000 operas (1700-1850) to choose from'. Bampton are doing more for that cause than anyone else in the country; possibly the world.
'The epitome of opera in a garden', 'giddily exciting', 'sharp-witted', 'polished', 'vigorous and fresh', 'seductive', 'sparkling'; 'delightful and diversely entertaining'; manifesting 'panache', 'wit, charm and bags of joy', are just a few of its accolades from people at the very top of the profession - and they should know.
Bampton, with its 'single, clear-headed artistic vision' quickly earned fame for its daring, fresh repertoire. It has admittedly branched, big-time, into Haydn (Le Pescatrici, already picked up by Leonard Ingrams' Garsington, was one of a flood of - to be precise, six - such treats); Gluck, another favourite, and Mozart - one superb trilogy of fragmentary or unfinished operas was brilliant - The Deluded Bridegroom, with a young, admirable Ed Gardner - post ENO, now Scandinavia and the London Philharmonic - conducting, absolutely superb.
Bampton was the first actually to stage - stunningly, in 2002 - The Philosopher's Stone (Der Stein der Weisen: its other title, Der Zauberinsel, even more apt), concocted in 1790 - and its story is all but a dead ringer for The Magic Flute - music and performing roles by a combination of composer-singers of note gathered at Vienna's Theater an der Wieden around Bavarian-born impresario Emanuel Schikaneder, but with a modest input from Mozart, whose Flute Schikaneder would provide a libretto for, and stage (with many of the same magnificent performers) the next year.
It's sometimes forgotten that after the world lost Mozart, Schikaneder carried on with a bevy of similar fantasy operas. Mozart's deputy on Die Zauberflöte - he would take over the baton from the third performance - was the twenty-two-year-old prodigy Johann Henneberg, who would go on to compose eleven operas himself, partly in the same 'magic' vein, from 1792 to 1799. If his talent was as good as it sounds (and Schikaneder's libretti), Bampton might well take a peep at these: they probably have already, as they're surely tailor-made for this ever-enterprising Oxfordshire company - this September diverting (with Haydn's The Apothecary) to Sussex (Wadhurst, near Tunbridge Wells) - who also take an annual spin usually at St John's, Smith Square, London (Wednesday 13 September 2023); and this year are featuring (with Haydn's The Apothecary) in an accommodating space that's part of, or adjacent to, Sir John Soane's magnificent Museum (22 Mansfield Street, Lincoln's Inn), which other music groups, such as Harry Christophers' The Sixteen, have graced and proved a richly decorated and atmospheric venue.
A treat for London, and anywhere else they may venture. Salieri's cheery Venetian Fair fitted the distinctive Bampton manner perfectly. 'La Serenissima', 'The City of Masks', 'The floating City' was a good location to lampoon.
His librettist was Giovanni Boccherini, elder brother (by just a year) of the chamber, symphony and concerto composer; this was the pair's fourth collaboration; they teamed up for a fifth, La secchia rapita, the same year (1772). Both knew Venice. Boccherini leads the way and the young Salieri laps it all up; by 1788-9 he had even moved on to Da Ponte.
Who shone here? Well, the whole cast, really. As usual, French and Gray have the knack of casting singer-performers who effortlessly fit with what one might certainly call the house style. It's zippy, unpredictable, helter-skelter, often side-splitting, dizzy, maniacal and full of pzazz matched by ingenuity and commonsense. Here the nominally lead character, Duke Ostrogoto (Andrew Henley) hails from Vicenza, the closest city to where Salieri was actually born.
His new inamorata, Falsirena (really Alamirena) is a feisty character well worth pursuing (Ellen Mawhinney). Both exemplified one of Bampton's excellences, the quality of diction, tailored to its eager audience.
The real Duchess-to-be (Sarah Chae - she and Ostrogoto are engaged), tracking down her affianced wanderer, is sensationally feisty when she lets rip, but knockout in duet as well.
Bampton's orchestra, fractionally iffy just in its first couple of years (rapidly surging to new heights), is a splendid vehicle, with a flair for this Classical era at their fingertips. Merely a single flute and bassoon here, but twin oboes and horns, wonderfully alluring early in the Overture, beamed through. More than enough strings, positively alive as the score demands. (A same sized team, drawing on the celebrated, also modern music-focused, Chroma ensemble, polished to fruition by inspiring composer-conductor Gregory Rose - with strong Bampton connections - will feature in London and Sussex.) If fledgling Salieri's youthful scoring missed a few solo opportunities, everything was vivid and scrupulously held together by an impressively experienced, first-class conductor, Thomas Blunt.
That translation? 'I fancy a piece of cake - I'm feeling rather peckish'; Belfusto (the rival): 'Women, what have you done to me?' - repeated, hence da capo. An enchanting leafy aria from Chae's Calloandra ('river ... shiver'; 'Selena ... Ribena').
Mawhinney's Alamirena (Falsirena) beautifully secure on top notes. Everyone rollicking, tumbling and topsy-turvey for the well-crafted market and masque (fiera) scenes, into which Grifagno, tiresome, intrusive father (Philip Sheffield, certainly a seasoned, slick performer), bursts into a skittish vocal sequence. (There are several such.) A striking comic part for the innkeeper Rasoio, giving way to a fabulous, witty and playful passage for the masquerading Falsirena, folding into the Duke, then Iúnó Connolly's Cristallina, in a polished, energetic, intermingled sequence of the kind of which Salieri is already well capable.
When characters enter and exit, Gilly French always comes up with some relevant punchline: it's part of her art. So many scintillating moments: a cascade of coloratura, elaborate, exciting, when Calloandra confronts her errant fiancé. And as a bonus, flute and oboe are both now deployed, all this making it one of the most memorable, and attractive, scenes in the opera.
What's more, Salieri is concocting more or less a prolonged, elongated scene: one thinks, dare one? of the culmination of Figaro, or about the Mozart-inspired two-Act finales in that Bampton magnificent achievement with Storace, brother of the original Susanna. Even if the March, here a fraction subdued, might not have alarmed Amadeus's Emperor Joseph.
Indeed the recitative - that same exchange between Henley's Ostrogoto and Mawhinney's Falsirena, for example - was as good this time round as I can remember: in London rehearsals Bampton puts wise and welcome emphasis onto perfecting this, generating pacing and personality, and the result, particularly with conductor Blunt whipping along his continuo colleagues - yet never gratuitously, always well-judged, always apt, both catching and engineering the mood - is vital: flowing, canny, polished; so essential to the whole.
And it yields so much: Calloandra (soon to be the Duchess) and the earthy Cristallina spiritedly bat lines to and fro, before Sarah Chae delivers one of the most perfect - and urging - arias of the evening.
Did I espy a bat - so intelligently - flit over us at that moment? That's one of the extra joys of a scrumptious Bampton evening.
Copyright © 11 August 2023