04 May 2016

Bampton Classical Opera 2016

A Double-Bill of Divine Comedies

Bampton Classical Opera’s summer 2016 production will be a double-bill of one-act works: the UK première and first staging in modern times of Gluck’s Philemon and Baucis, and Thomas Arne’s The Judgment of Paris, which the company performed in 2010-11. The operas will be staged by the same creative team as the highly-successful 2015 production of Salieri’s Trofonio’s Cave ( review): director Jeremy Gray, translator Gilly French, and conductor Paul Wingfield, who was a Jette Parker Young Artist from 2012-14 and is currently a member of the music staff at the Royal Opera House.

The cast for both operas features Canadian soprano Barbara Cole Walton, making her company début, mezzo-soprano Catherine Backhouse, who sang in the London performance of Salieri’s Trofonio’s Cave in 2015, and two other cast members from the same production: soprano Aoife O’Sullivan and tenor Christopher Turner. They are joined by tenor Robert Anthony Gardiner and baritone Robert Gildon.

Bampton Classical Opera has made a unique commitment to performing some of Gluck’s barely-known shorter operas, including UK premières of La danza and Il Parnaso confuso (review). Gluck is all too easily assigned to a single musico-historical category – that of operatic reformer. However, his works extend far beyond the ‘reform’ opera style with which he is most commonly associated, encompassing youthful Metastasian opera seria, numerous ballet scores and several delightful one-act festal serenatas.

As a long-time employee of the Hapsburg estate, Gluck was required to devise suitable entertainments for festive occasions. In 1769, when Ferdinand, Duke of Parma and grandson of Louis XV, was to marry Maria Amalia, Archduchess of Austria and sister of Marie Antoinette a series of events was planned, comprising a tournament, elaborate feasts, a Chinese fair, and a festival illustrating contemporary advances in art and science. The festivities stretched over several months, and included an opera-ballet commissioned from Gluck entitled Le feste d’Apollo, which consisted of a prologue and three essentially unrelated acts: Aristeo, Philémon e Baucis and an abridgement of the composer’s Orfeo.

Characteristically, the subject of Philemon and Baucis was taken from Classical mythology. It tells of the story of two young lovers, the eponymous shepherd and shepherdess, who show great respect and care for Jupiter when he appears before them disguised as a pilgrim. In return, the rustic couple are blessed by Jupiter with everlasting life and elevated to the status of demigods. At the same time, he curses their fellow Phrygians who had refused to help him.

The score blends the charmingly simple with the intricately sophisticated. One commenter has observed of the work that ‘Shorter numbers have an epigrammatic compression of charm and style that is very French, but the longer arias possess a majestic breadth of treatment that both looks back to Italian Baroque models and forward to Mozart’.

Gluck borrowed from several earlier works – inevitably commissions for festive occasion-pieces needed to be dashed off in haste – but there is some striking original music too, not least Jupiter’s aria di furia against the uncharitable Phyrigians, Bauci’s joyful, florid, stratospheric ‘Il mio pastor tu sei’, and a thunderous storm sequence.

This new première will be given in an English translation by Gilly French, with a performing edition based on a manuscript in the Royal College of Music.

The Judgment of Paris is one of three masques composed by Thomas Arne between 1738 and 1742. It represents, along with The Masque of Comus and The Masque of Alfred some of the composer’s finest work. It was first performed in London on 12 March 1742, and it has been suggested that it may have been intended to upstage Sammartini, the protégé of Frederick the Prince of Wales, for the Italian’s own The Judgment of Paris had been performed at Cliveden in 1740 alongside Arne’s masque, Alfred.

William Congreve’s text had been set before, in 1700, when it served as the vehicle for a composing competition whose 200 guinea prize was shared between Daniel Purcell, John Weldon, John Eccles and Gottfried Finger. The winning compositions were subsequently performed at a special concert. Perhaps in choosing the same libretto forty years later, Arne hoped to make a point about his own superior standing, although by then the original competition pieces had long been forgotten.

Arne’s inventive music perfectly matches Congreve’s droll wit. The action relates the episode in which Paris, a shepherd, is obliged to choose the fairest among the three goddesses Juno, Pallas and, inevitably, Venus. During the competition, Paris finds himself the subject of various enticements as the goddesses attempt to persuade him in turn to award them the symbol of victory, a golden apple. Far from displaying bucolic gaucheness, Paris demonstrates unanticipated wile in delaying his judgement for long enough to incite the impatient goddess into singing several arias and engaging in a degree of disrobing. Just how is a director to treat Paris’s line, ‘When each is undress’d, I’ll judge of the best’?

The overture is well-known but there is also much lovely writing for solo voice, which in the words of one modern commentator shows Arne to be ‘at the height of his powers […] unequalled by his English contemporaries for the matchless flow of his melodic invention’. In addition to the beautiful, Paris and Mercury (two tenors) share a splendid duet and the three goddesses have a lively dance-like trio. As with Gluck, the music ranges the simple – strophic airs – to the intricate, as in ‘Gentle swain’ with its elaborate cello obliggato.

Bampton Classical Opera performed The Judgment of Paris in concert performances marking Arne’s 300th birthday in Oxford’s Holywell Music Room and in Wigmore Hall in 2010-11.

Claire Seymour

Production details:

Philemon and Baucis/The Judgment of Paris , with free pre-performance talks:

The Deanery Garden, Bampton, Oxfordshire OX18 2LL

7.00 pm Friday 22 July, Saturday 23 July

The Orangery Terrace, Westonbirt School, near Tetbury, Glos GL8 8QG

5.00 pm Monday 29 August

St John’s Smith Square, London SW1P 3HA

7.00 pm Tuesday 13 September

Philemon and Baucis

Baucis – Barbara Cole Walton, Philemon – Catherine Backhouse, Jupiter – Christopher Turner, Chorus soprano (shepherdess) – Aoife O’Sullivan, Chorus tenor – Robert Anthony Gardiner, Chorus baritone – Robert Gildon

The Judgment of Paris

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

Conductor: Paul Wingfield

Director/designer: Jeremy Gray

Movement director: Triona Adams

Costume designer: Vikki Medhurst

The Deanery Garden and Westonbirt:

Tickets: £35 (under 18: half-price)

By Telephone: 01993 851142

Online: www.bamptonopera.org

By post: Bampton Classical Opera, 1 Deanery Court, Broad Street, Bampton, OX18 2LY

St John’s Smith Square:

Tickets: £15, £22, £30. Booking for Friends of St John’s opens 4 July, for General Public 11 July

By Telephone: 020 7222 1061

Online: www.sjss.org.uk

By post: St John’s Smith Square, London SW1P 3HA