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The Son of Man by René Magritte (1964)
22 Sep 2013

La finta semplice, Bampton Classical Opera

Mozart cut his operatic teeth on La finta semplice, as a twelve-year-old prodigy being paraded before the Viennese court by his ambitious father, Leopold.

La finta semplice, Bampton Classical Opera

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: The Son of Man by René Magritte (1964)


Responding enthusiastically to a casual remark by Emperor Joseph II that the young wunderkind might like to compose an opera for the court, the proud parent precipitately exclaimed, “Today we are to see a Gluck and tomorrow a boy of twelve seated at the harpsichord conducting his own opera”.

Unfortunately his impetuous pronouncement was a little premature, for Leopold had not reckoned with the jealousy of the musical retinue at court, who were not keen to be upstaged by an unwelcome upstart, and with the machinations of the Emperor’s dubious theatre manager, Giuseppe d’Afflisio, who - already in financial difficulties - was unwilling to take a gamble on the first operatic efforts of an untried teenager. The unworthiness of a twelve-year-old to occupy the hallowed maestro’s chair was urged, the merit of the music disputed, and its veracity challenged, some alleging that it had in fact been composed by Leopold.

Mozart did compose the opera, but had to wait until 1769 for the first performance, in Salzburg. However, in some ways Leopold Mozart’s suggestion that a new operatic age, led by his precocious offspring, was about to dawn was spot on. While a remarkable achievement for an adolescent, La finta semplice is understandably lacking in the richness and variety of human feeling of Mozart’s later works, but nevertheless the instinctive sense of the dramatic and innate feeling for musical characterisation is already evident, and there are a few gleams of the move from aria-based form to truly interactive ensembles which was soon to follow. Moreover, there are incipient signs of the combination of the comic and the tragic which define the Mozartian genius.

Comparisons with the mature opera buffa are unfair but inevitable, especially as the plot revolves around that old staple of obstructions to young love being overcome by wiles and wisdom; and one may indeed discern a touch of Despina in Ninetta, or a foretaste of Figaro’s Countess in Rosina.

In fact, the actions of Coltellini’s libretto, adapted from a play by Goldoni’s 1764, and the familiar character ‘types’, drawn from everyday life, are closer to commedia dell’arte than the clever complexities of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s comic masterpieces. A Hungarian officer, Fracasso, and his sergeant, Simone, are billeted with two rich, unmarried brothers, the irritable and petulant Don Cassandro and the more timid, empty-headed Don Polidoro. The brothers have a sister, Giacinta, whom Fracasso is wooing, while Simone addresses his amorous advances towards Giacinta’s maid, Ninetta. Fracasso and Simone determine to enlist the assistance of Fracasso’s sister, Rosina; with ‘finta semplice’ - literally, pretended foolishness - she will flirt and divert the attention of both brothers. This she does with thespian adroitness and the predictable complications follow. Ultimately, the brothers are told that Giacinta and Ninetta have absconded with the family jewels and the princes are persuaded by Rosina to offer the light-fingered lasses’ hands in marriage to the men who can find them and return the treasures. Inevitably, this feat is duly accomplished by Fracasso and Simone, and the nuptials are agreed. Rosina - having led Polidoro to believe he is the favoured one - at the last surprisingly switches her devotion to the misogynist Cassandro, exposing her ‘innocent’ deception and declaring that she surely deserves forgiveness for being cleverer than she appeared. Polidoro accepts his rejection, consoled by the fact that his brother has been proven to be equally foolish, and multiple marriages ensue.

‘Pride and Pretence’, the title of Jeremy Gray and Gilly French’s frivolous but efficacious translation, aptly encapsulates the work. Sharp rhymes keep the farce whipping along and add a touch of slickness to the boisterous larks on stage.

So often the plots of commedia and of opera buffa defy unequivocal explanation - have you ever tried to summarise the libretto of Figaro for an opera novice? Thus, Jeremy Gray’s surreal sets, comprising copious visual references to René Magritte - who so disliked explanations which diluted the enigma of his images - made a fittingly ambiguous and paradoxical backdrop to this tale of mistaken identity and crossed purposes.

Magritte’s Les amants, In which the identity of the figures is mysteriously veiled in white muslin, as two blanketed heads attempt to kiss each other through their cloth encasements, may hint at darker themes - isolation, suffocation and alienation - but here served to highlight the frustrated desire experienced by all the personnel, and perhaps too the inability to fully know the true nature of even our most intimate acquaintances. Sculptured torsos, derived from ‘La Lumière des coïncidences’ were similarly enshrouded throwing illumination on the illogicality of life - as Magritte himself said, “Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us.” The floating clouds of the painter’s ‘The Empire of Light’, hovering bowler hats and green apples plucked from ‘The Son of Man’, and the impenetrable perplexities of ‘Ceci n'est pas une pipe’ (This is not a pipe) formed a kind of surreal graffiti which established an aptly chaotic ambience of confusion and contradiction, blurring reality and illusion.

The cast were uniformly excellent - totally committed to the music and alert to the comic potential of the drama. Several of the singers are long-time Bampton associates and this helped to create a sense of comfortable companionship and confidence.

As the irascible Don Cassandro, baritone Nicholas Merryweather was drily peevish in his Act 1 aria but he did not settle into caricature, and showed dramatic and musical intelligence in developing the complexity of the role as the action progressed. Mozart’s music may be stylistically somewhat unvarying but there are some signs of the remarkable musical delineation which would be the hallmark of his later operas. Thus, Polidoro’s arias are often of slower tempo and while Robert Anthony Gardiner took advantage of every opportunity to convey the younger prince’s inanity he also added an occasional note of pathos to his warm tenor, especially during the aria in which he confesses his subjugation to Rosina and at the moment of his ultimate disillusionment.

Simone is a role of minor importance, but bass Gavan Ring made a big impression, his voice full of character and his diction clear; his breathless entrance during the Act 1 Finale was especially effective, as he rushed in with an announcement that a handsome stranger is requesting permission to wait upon Rosina and take her out to dinner, throwing all into confusion and paving the way for the troubles and trickeries ahead. Adam Tunnicliffe was a boisterous Fracasso, expertly colouring the recitative, every word audible, and singing with ringing tone. Only in his final aria did he seem to tire a little, the rhythmic tightness occasionally lessening.

Aoife O’Sullivan demonstrated stamina and flexibility in the demanding role of Rosina, despatching the glittering coloratura of her lengthy Act 3 aria with accomplishment and ease. She used her supple, sweet-toned soprano to communicate character and text with clarity, and revealed herself to be no mean actress too, drolly playing the simpleton to Polidoro, masterfully manipulating Cassandro and clever controlling the amorous destinies of her brother, her sister-in-law-to-be’s maid and herself. As Ninetta, Nathalie Chalkley’s bright soprano and comic astuteness suggest she would make a good Susanna; Caryl Hughes was highly effective in the small role of Giacinta.

Conductor Andrew Griffiths demonstrated a keen sense of style and dramatic momentum, drawing superb, stylish playing from the eighteen musicians of CHROMA. The recitatives, skilfully and sensitively accompanied by harpsichordist Charlotte Forrest, raced along - convincing, lively conversations rather than dramatic longueurs (the contrast to Figaro at the ROH the evening before was notable). It was in the act finales - where the characters enter in rather jerky succession compared with the smooth accumulation of texture and tempo of the later operas - that Griffiths most particularly showed his dramatic acumen, managing the abrupt changes of style, tempo and time signature with impressive control, forming an effective chain of contrasting sections.

Occasionally the on-stage shenanigans were perhaps rather too busy and barmy, but this may well have been a result of the restrictions imposed by the limited stage area: the elongated narrow strip must have seemed exasperatingly cluttered and congested compared to the more expansive dimensions of the open-air stage at the Deanery Gardens in Bampton for which the production was devised. (Incidentally, operatic croquet seems to be all the rage at present: BYO’s recent production of Cimarosa’s The Secret Marriage featured a panoply of ‘sporting’ ensembles - but Bampton got there first!) Overall, this was another discerningly amusing performance by Bampton Classical Opera: a cheerful, charming production which confirmed the essential mystery of the ordinary and the inscrutability of the world of love.

Claire Seymour

Bampton Classical Opera will perform La finta semplice at The Barn at Bury Court on 20 October.

Cast and production information:

Giacinta, Caryl Hughes; Fracasso, Adam Tunnicliffe; Ninetta, Nathalie Chalkley; Simone, Gavan Ring; Rosina, Aoife O’Sullvan; Don Polidoro, Robert Anthony Gardiner; Don Cassandro, Nicholas Merryweather; Director/Designer, Jeremy Gray; Costume Designer, Fiona Hodges; Conductor, Andrew Griffiths; CHROMA.

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