Monday, 21 September 2015

La grotta di Trofonio, Bampton Classical Opera, 15 September 2015

(sung in English, as Trofonio’s Cave)

St John’s, Smith Square

Aristone – James Harrison
Dori – Aoife O’Sullivan
Ofelia – Catherine Backhouse (sung)/Marieke Bernard-Berkel
Artemidoro – Christopher Turner
Plistene – Nicholas Merryweather
Trofonio – Matthew Stiff
Ladies’ Maid – Triona Adams

Jeremy Gray (director, set designs)
Triona Adams (movement)
Vikki Medhurst (costumes)

Paul Wingfield (conductor)

The best and most important production and performance I have seen yet from Bampton Classical Opera, on its annual visit to St John’s Smith Square! I cannot have been the only member of the audience seeing a complete Salieri opera for the first time; to say that it exceeded my expectations would be an understatement. I had previously heard a few operatic excerpts, some of his sacred music (treated with all the respect it deserves by Riccardo Muti) and some instrumental music. La grotta di Trofonio emerged, with the usual caveats concerning a first hearing, not only as a work I should happily hear again, superior to many operas in the dread repertoire, but as a musical achievement not so far off the operas of Haydn. (Any regular readers will know that is no idle compliment from me.) The Gluckian side of Salieri, about which we hear more often, is considerably less in evidence, but this is a comedy, and Salieri marshals his resources accordingly.

Indeed, it is the symphonic Haydn who comes immediately to mind in the Overture, its slow, mysterious Introduction, swiftly put to side by high yet directed spirits, having, in a display of long-term musico-dramatic thinking, sown the seeds for the mysteries of Trofonio’s cave. Over the work’s two acts, a full Classical orchestra engages the mind and the senses to a degree I should never have imagined. Vocal writing is at the least accomplished throughout, and often rather more than that. Ensembles are perhaps a particular revelation, reminding or informing us that both the genesis of opera buffa and its musical modernity are a more complicated story than many would have us believe. What we lack, you may not be surprised to hear, is what we lack in Haydn: depth of characterisation and of emotion, a hint of those musico-dramatic epiphanies which change one’s life forever, etc. And, like many operas, it goes on longer than it need, especially in the second act. (You see how hard I am struggling not to mention someone else by name.)

The plot is easily dealt with. A father, Aristone, is – unusually! – happy with his two daughters’ choice of suitors. They enter Trofonio’s cave, emerge, following his incantations, with their personal qualities reversed: bookish to fun-loving and vice versa. The reversal is reversed, but then the daughters, tempted into the cave, suffer the same fate. After similar incomprehension, their reversal too is reversed. A wedding can be prepared. You might think there a similarity with a certain libretto of Lorenzo da Ponte (which Salieri actually began to set); I couldn’t possibly comment.

This revival, almost certainly the first British production, is the project of Gilly French (the English translation is also hers) and Jeremy Gray, who also directs and provides set designs. There is no attempt to offer the depths that the opera itself lacks. What might seem simply to be of the surface for a certain opera whose premiere came not so much as five years later, in 1790, also at Vienna’s Burgtheater, proves well suited to the different nature of Salieri’s collaboration with the far-from-unintellectual Giovanni Battista Casti (whom many of us will know both from Prima la musica e poi la parole and its role in the genesis of Strauss’s Capriccio). Action moves to 1910; I know, because I was the lucky recipient of a dated ‘Downton Abbey’ wedding invitation during the performance. That seems to be a favoured period of the company – attractive, doubtless, to the English country-house opera scene, and also easy to dress, but here, in its Importance of Being Earnest atmosphere, perhaps particularly appropriate. Trofonio’s cave is the TARDIS: make of the time-travelling what you will. It is decidedly unclear whether the Tom Baker-clad Trofonio himself should be a charlatan (a few years later, someone might have offered a Mesmerist slant) or someone who enables self-reflection. Does the one exclude the other? Such invitations and ambiguities are anything but heavy-handed interventions; indeed, they are present in the work, whether intentionally or otherwise. Most importantly, they offer one space to think beyond the bare bones of the plot. (You might be surprised how many people complain about misogyny and a lack of ‘realism’ in one Ferrarese entertainment, how many take it at its librettist’s apparent word.)

The playing of CHROMA under Paul Wingfield was nothing short of magnificent, aided by the excellent acoustic of St John’s, Smith Square. I cannot recall a single tempo choice that did not convince, and the array of musical colour, not least in the woodwind section, showed quite why a young composer from, say, Salzburg might have chosen to make his living in Vienna. The orchestral contribution was not the least, indeed was arguably the greatest, musical offering of all, given the scale and ambition of Salieri’s writing.

Moreover, the cast would have graced any house. As Aristone, James Harrison made much of the musical and verbal text, providing a crucial anchor of stability, but never dullness, as identities switched around him. Matthew Stiff proved an engaging, properly ambiguous agent of disruption as Trofonio; his invocation of the spirits, bolstered by an able chorus, had me thinking of Saul’s visit to the Witch of Endor.  Nicholas Merryweather and Christopher Turner proved equally successful in both of their personalities, offering as much character, generally born of subtlety in vocal colouring, as such an opera permits. Likewise Aoife O’Sullivan as Dori, in her transformation from fun-loving daughter to would-be Platonist, her brightness of tone never wearing. We should have heard Anna Starushkevych as Ofelia, but visa problems – is this not a country to be proud of? – prevented the Ukrainian mezzo from travelling, so instead we were treated to a collaboration from the side-of-stage singer Catherine Backhouse and the centre-stage acting of Marieke Bernard-Berkel. It was no distraction at all; indeed, there was arguably an intriguing dramatic alienation – think of the subject matter, assumption of different personas – to be had from the situation. More to the point, perhaps, Backhouse’s short-notice performance showed her to be an excellent artist, rich of tone and admirably clear of diction, and Bernard-Berkel’s stage presence proved equally impressive.   

No, of course it is not an opera by you-know-who. It is an opera by Salieri. The action remains largely on the surface, but does not prevent one from thinking further for oneself, and arguably invites one to do so. There is none of the agony, indeed none of the greatness in any respect, of Così fan tutte – all right; I shall finally name it and him by name – but if we are to restrict ourselves to the level of Mozart, then survivors will be well-nigh non-existent.  Bampton Classical Opera has done La grotta di trofonio and Salieri proud. May our opera houses take note. Alas, I shall not hold my breath; after all, is not another revival of La triviata a more pressing artistic requirement?