Tuesday, 17 September 2013

La finta semplice, Bampton Classical Opera, 17 September 2013

 St John’s, Smith Square

(performed in English, as Pride and Pretence)

Rosina – Aoife O’Sullivan
Don Cassandro – Nicholas Merryweather
Don Polidoro – Robert Anthony Gardiner
Giacinta – Caryl Hughes
Ninetta – Nathalie Chalkley
Fracasso – Adam Tunnicliffe
Simone – Gavan Ring

Jeremy Gray (director)

Andrew Griffiths (conductor)
Bampton Classical Opera’s annual visit to St John’s Smith Square this year offered La finta semplice, the twelve-year-old Mozart’s three-act opera buffa to a Goldoni libretto as modified by Marco Coltellini. Coltellini had settled in Vienna in the early 1760s, having been appointed as Metastasio’s successor as court poet. Libretti included that for Tommaso Traetta’s 1763 Ifigenia in Tauride, in some ways a precursor of Gluck’s reform operas, incorporating as it did many elements of French tragédie lyrique into the typically more Italianate Viennese opera. Indeed, Gluck would set Coltellini’s Telemaco in 1765, and Salieri his Armida in 1771.

La finta semplice, composed in 1768, came between those two works. Though rehearsed in Vienna in 1768, it was not performed, seemingly the victim of Leopold Mozart’s failure to gain a contract, Mozart’s father having acted upon Joseph II’s suggestion – Joseph was now Holy Roman Emperor, and Co-regent of the Habsburg lands with Maria Theresa, though she still very much wore the imperial trousers – that Mozart might write a work for performance by the court opera. Intrigues that would not have been out of place in Amadeus thwarted the expected performance, and the Mozarts abruptly returned to Salzburg, where La finta semplice would be performed the following year at the Archbishop’s Palace, probably on 1 May. We can be reasonably sure that that performance, employing local musicians including Michael Haydn’s wife, Magdalena Lipp, as Rosina, was the only one during Mozart’s lifetime.

Though occasionally staged since, it remains a rarity. My only previous theatrical encounter with it having been during the heavenly anniversary year of 2006, when Salzburg staged all of Mozart’s operas, though this particular opera received an anything-but-heavenly staging, recitatives being ditched in favour of a gameshow format, in which a squeaky-voiced woman clad in a bright yellow jumpsuit shouted directorial inanities. Michael Hofstetter’s conducting of the Camerata Salzburg was not much better, abrasively harrying an orchestra that bore all too readily the wounds of its Norringtonian passion. (Though I have proved unable to bring myself to return to it, the production is available on DVD, lest the reader think it a figment of my fevered imagination.)

It was, then, with eagerness that I travelled to Westminster for a second chance, sad perhaps that the opera was being offered in translation, yet grateful that it was to be performed at all. The ‘new English translation’ by Gilly French and Jeremy Gray was one of those translations more akin to a new ‘version’: not a problem if it works and proves a thoroughgoing recreation, but in this case tended more towards the merely silly. Words and sometimes whole couplets seemed chosen more on account of the opportunity for an attention-seeking rhyme, such as ‘boozing’ and ‘snoozing’, than because they were dramatically fitting, let alone faithful. Nevertheless, when making a mental comparison with the jumpsuit gameshow ‘version’, one could breathe a sigh or two of relief. Gray’s staging, insofar as one could tell, given its transporting from Bampton to Westminster, offered manic – sometimes a little too manic – action against a vaguely surrealistic backdrop. In that, it was doubtless consistent with the conception apparent from the translation of kinship to farce, though I am not sure that it thereby displayed any real appreciation of Goldoni’s buffa form, Coltellini’s revisions, or indeed Mozart’s music. Partly for that reason, I shall not delve more deeply into the plot; synopses are readily available, and in the circumstances, the musical performance became more evidently the thing.

Certain overheated moments apart, though, it did not particular harm either. Andrew Griffiths was able as conductor to show a far keener appreciation of the score, pacing it well, offering both contrast and, especially during the second and third acts, a proper sense, even at this stage in Mozart’s career, of dramatic development. Griffiths yielded where appropriate, without succumbing in any sense to the mannerisms that so bedevil present performances of eighteenth-century repertoire. If there were occasions when one missed the sound of a full orchestra, the CHROMA ensemble offered for the most part finely honed, sensitive playing: stylish without affectation. Charlotte Forrest deserves special mention as the excellent harpsichord continuo player. A young cast offered an ensemble that was definitely more than the sum of its parts, not that they were negligible. If in many cases some numbers proved more strongly sung than others, there was a high level not only of promise but accomplishment.   Aoife O’Sullivan’s account of Rosina, the baroness, was perhaps the high point, its musical sensitivity matching that of the players. But a general sense of commitment and exuberance went a long way.


Seine Frau said...

Mister Berry said:

"And in my experience, the greater number of the ultra-defensive cannot read a score"


The most important thing is that the musical architecture is FELT.

Understanding music theory or the technical aspects of a composition does not affect what the music sounds like, and what it sounds like is WHY it moves you. Musical love and appreciation always TRANSCENDS our propositional knowledge about musical techniques (i.e. finding out how it works).

Just because a person doesn’t know the nomenclature of the harmonic patterns or other technical matters does NOT mean he or she is not aware of these goings-on.

bamptonclassicalopera said...

I'm delighted that you found plenty to praise in our performance and there is some comfort that you considered the production preferable to the Salzburg one, which certainly seemed abstracted to the point of emptiness. But perhaps I might comment on some of your points? La finta semplice is the work of a child - tuneful and energetic, bursting with promise, but predictably low on emotional depth. Some of its faults may lie in the fact that a 12 yr-old composer could hardly have understood the issues of marital relationships on which the libretto centres. But - and this was quickly apparent at the start of the long process of bringing the piece to realisation on the stage - the main 'problems' in the work lie squarely in the libretto, one which surely a few years later Mozart would have soundly rejected. Goldoni and Coltellini may be significant librettists but ‘finta’ is extraordinarily weak – in sentiments, narrative and structure. We almost dropped the project when we came to understand what a poor text we were having to work with. Perhaps we could have glossed over its infelicities by performing in Italian, but there seems little point in presenting an unknown comedy on the stage to audiences in a language they do not (usually) understand. In our translation we aimed at verbal energy and directness to communicate what is undeniably a farcical plot enacted by two-dimensional characters. The Italian original bristles with rhymes, often quite forced, and in a language which is often blunt and replete with insults. Our English was therefore rather closer to the meaning and spirit of the Italian than you might think.
We will admit to being a ‘version’ inasmuch as we drastically shortened the recitatives. In some cases these extended to twenty pages of score with little development of plot or character: such adaptation could be criticised as not ‘displaying any real appreciation’ but is entirely within the spirit of eighteenth-century performance practice when there was little respect for the finality of the score. As for language, you mention as an example ‘boozing’ and ‘snoozing’ – but here’s the Italian: Un affronto novella! Corpo di santanasso! Andatene a dormire, se avete voi bevuto! / Ma l’anello l’ha avuto. / Che anello, ubriacone? A row between a drunken lord and an enraged soldier is unlikely to be voiced in a refined literary style, and the translator must find an appropriate idiom for argument and insult whilst also respecting the rhythms and stresses of the music.
I wonder why you found the setting only ‘vaguely’ surrealist? Within the limitations of a small budget, the design was closely modelled on specific paintings by Magritte which many have recognised, approved of and smiled at. I made some comments on this by way of explanation in a programme note. Magritte was the ultimate faux-naïf in art, rigorously pursuing a ‘feigned naiviety’ in style and subject in order to explore the paradoxes of illusion. That seemed well-suited to the underlying theme of the text.

Mark Berry said...

I am not at all sure why I even allowed that comment; perhaps because it showed up 'Seine Frau' more than it did me or anyone else. Interestingly, it bears a striking resemblance to a string of 'anonymous' comments on another site, Lisa Hirsch's Iron Tongue of Midnight; I believe she has had to suspend comments on the posting in question. Perhaps most baffling is that this phrase 'Mister Berry' is alleged to have employed appears neither here nor on Lisa's blog. Someone clearly has 'issues'...

Seine Frau said...

Just because you are able to discuss music or opera in technical terms does NOT mean you love it more profoundly.

Music, of all the arts, is the one that does not and should not require explanation or education. If it works at all it should talk directly to THE INNER LISTENER, beneath the layers of pretension or persona.

If the music has more going for it that simply satisfying the short-term pretensions of elitists and pseudo-intellectuals then it will survive on its own merits, if not it will die out as the fad passes and audiences move on.

A person doesn't need to know anything to enjoy and appreciate music. I'm NOT talking about instant gratification, nor am I saying that the experience cannot be deepened or improved with time, but you do hear people criticising those who don't "understand" certain strands of modern music where the suggestion is that they lack the intellectual capacity or taste (whatever that is) to appreciate it. The point I am trying to make is that music ultimately should be able to transcend education, intellect and culture in a way that literature, for instance, cannot.

Mark Berry said...

Thank you to the second (Bampton) poster for your generous reply: to my shame, rather more generous than I was. I agree that the libretto is no masterpiece, but at least Italian, whatever its level of elevation or otherwise, has the merit of sounding 'right'; it is what Mozart set. However, although in general, I am no fan of translation, I should hate to be fundamentalist about such matters, and think I should probably have been more appreciative of the difficulty of the task you faced.

'Vaguely' was, I admit, more than a little vague in terms of meaning. I suspect that the cause of such a response was, as you suggest, very real financial restraints. Doubtless the designs would have made a stronger impact with greater resources, but I felt them to be somewhat drowned out, as it were, by the hustle and bustle of the stage activity. Magritte of course shone through nonetheless, and I should clearly have done better to mention him by name. I am afraid I did not see a programme, so was unable to read the essay. The idea you mention here of feigned simplicity, however, seems both apt and winning. Perhaps I should respond differently, were I to see the production again.

Mark Berry said...

And with that, I think it is time to block any further comments from 'Seine Frau' or whatever alias he/she next comes up with: not because I cannot take criticism, but because it bears no relation to anything I have said here or anywhere else, and certainly not to this review of La finta semplice. (The review, of course, may have its own faults, as discussed above.)

leonora said...

I've been trying to find the comment that 'Seine Frau' is complaining about - it's certainly not in your review!!
I suppose it's true that you don't 'need' to know anything 'technical' about music to enjoy it - but it adds to your enjoyment if you DO learn at least the basics, as it helps you to understand WHY you enjoy it....

Mark Berry said...

I shall spare readers the gory details of the increasingly abusive and pornographic postings being attempted, which now head straight to spam, as will those from other aliases. The deranged person from New Milford, New Jersey, United States (Optimum Online) IP Address: will bother us no longer, but visits and attempts will, I am informed, be logged in case legal action need be taken.