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.