Sunday, 18 September 2016

Bauci e Filemone (Gluck) and The Judgment of Paris (Arne), Bampton Classical Opera, 13 September 2016

St John’s, Smith Square

Pallas (Catherine Backhouse), Venus (Aoife O'Sullivan), Juno (Barbara Cole Walton)

(sung in English)

Bauci – Barbara Cole Walton
Filemone – Catherine Backhouse
Giove – Christopher Turner
Chorus – Aoife O’Sullivan, Robert Anthony Gardiner, Robert Gildon
Actors – Marieke Bernard-Berkel, Niamh Adams, Sophie Lyons

Mercury – Robert Anthony Gardiner
Paris – Christopher Turner
Juno – Barbara Cole Walton
Pallas – Catherine Backhouse
Venus – Aoife O’Sullivan
Mechanic – Robert Gildon

Jeremy Gray (director, set designs)
Vikki Medhurst (costumes)

Paul Wingfield (conductor)

We have a great deal for which to be grateful to Bampton Classical Opera, here making its annual staged visit to St John’s, Smith Square. Who else is interested in this country is interested in the broader hinterland of opera in, roughly, the second half of the eighteenth century? Gluck, by any standards, one of the most important composers in the history of opera, not just eighteenth-century opera, is all but ignored by our ‘major’, non-touring companies, although English Touring Opera offered a fine Iphigénie en Tauride earlier this year. (I also plan to report from the new staging in Paris in December.) If ‘reformist’ Gluck is so shamefully ignored, however, his earlier and concurrent ‘non-reformist’ self suffers a fate worse still.

Giove (Christopher Turner)

And yet, the dividing lines are not nearly so distinct as one might suspect. Filemone e Bauci, here sung in Gilly French’s English translation as Philemon and Baucis, was actually written as one act of a festa teatrale, La feste d’Apollo – not unlike a Ramellian opéra-ballet – whose final act was a revised (shortened) version of Orfeo ed Euridice. Intended for the 1769 wedding of Ferdinand, Duke of Parma, to Maria Theresa’s daughter, Maria Amalia, there was a rich, personal operatic past on which to draw, the Archduchess herself having sung in Viennese performances of two earlier Gluck operas, Il parnaso confuso (performed by Bampton forces in 2014) (as Apollo himself), and La corona. Gluck, moreover, for all the alleged purity of his operatic æsthetic, was far from averse to reusing music elsewhere, and there is some splendidly insane coloratura to be handled here too, no more banished to the dustbin of operatic history than a good number of other aspects of Metastasian opera seria. That La feste d’Apollo immediately followed Alceste – of the celebrated Preface – counsels us against parroting too readily all manner of supposed generalisations, turning points, and so forth, concerning operatic history. That said, whilst Bauci’s one aria offers us coloratura to make the Queen of the Night seem almost an amateur, the rest of Gluck’s style here is relatively simple. As so often, the truth is more interesting, more complicated, than received opinion would have us believe. We might know that in theory, of course, but we also need opportunities to experience that in performance, such as here.


It is not, perhaps, the most dramatic of works, certainly of libretti, but Giuseppe Maria Pagnini’s libretto, after Ovid, makes certain interesting modifications – I hesitate to say ‘metamorphoses’ – and Jeremy Gray’s production follows suit; both offer a setting for Gluck’s opera to shine forth, playing with the distance between antiquity, the eighteenth century and our time. Chez Pagnini, Philemon and Baucis – I shall now use the English forms – are not an elderly couple, but a pair of young lovers. They nevertheless show kindness beyond the call of duty towards the disguised Jupiter, and, following a storm of divine petulance, receive their priestly reward. Picking up on ideas of travel, disguise, and liminality, the action takes place – not didactically, but with an awareness of what a change of scene might do, to make us consider meaning – in the strange, modern world of the airport: not an uninteresting substitution for pastoral Phrygia. There can certainly be no doubting the helpfulness of these particular honest airline employees.

Mercury (Robert Anthony Gardiner) and Paris (Christopher Turner)

That is also the world, with different, yet related, designs for Thomas Arne’s The Judgment of Paris, Arne Air (‘no frills, plenty of trills’) itself – perhaps – a disguised –version of something else. The work is a little earlier than many, though by no means all, of Bampton’s works. To begin with, I even thought that Arne’s 1742 setting of William Congreve’s competition-entry libretto (1701) might have the edge over Gluck’s. It was a splendid opportunity to hear such a rarity, of course, but, as time went on, and with no disrespect to Ian Spink’s excellent Musica Britannica reconstruction of the dry recitatives and chorus music, Arne’s music, superficially similar to Handel’s, became somewhat predictable and perhaps stood in need of the occasional cut to admit of dramatic flow: quite the opposite, then, to Gluck, whose virtues, as so often, quietly crept up upon us. The witty presentation of Paris making his judg(e)ment as a passenger upon divinely-conjured air hostesses again has the virtue of permitting reflection, without forcing it upon us. Jupiter may be absent in person, but his messenger, Mercury again offers another lightly worn connection between works.


Baucis (Barbara Cole Walton)
The playing of CHROMA, under Paul Wingfield, proved excellent throughout. We may have come to expect that, but it is certainly not to be taken for granted. From the typically contrasting material – and its dramatic implications – of Gluck’s Overture to the final Arne chorus we were not only in safe, but colourful, harmonically aware hands, well capable of permitting the operatic action to ‘Sing, and spread the joyful News around’. Barbara Cole Walton proved every inch the star with that fiendish coloratura writing from Gluck. As Arne’s Juno, she took her part in an excellent team of competitors, her Juno complementing and contrasting with Catherine Backhouse’s wise, yet far from un-sensual Pallas, also a rich-toned, good-natured Philemon, and Aoife O’Sullivan’s spirited, highly characterful Venus. Christopher Turner’s Paris (and Jupiter) revealed to us a sensitive, agile tenor: many challenges here, met with formidable success. Robert Anthony Gardiner’s Mercury also impressed, with similar vocal virtues, and a keen sense of the stage. Members of the ensemble all made their mark. This was unquestionably a company triumph; the next Bampton opera(s) is or are eagerly awaited.


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