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Apollo, Euterpe, Melpomene (Gwawr Edwards) and Erato
19 Sep 2014

Gluck and Bertoni at Bampton

Bampton Classical Opera’s 2014 double bill neatly balanced drollery and gravity. Rectifying the apparent prevailing indifference to the 300th centenary of Christoph Willibald Gluck birth, Bampton offered a sharp, witty production of the composer’s Il Parnaso confuso, pairing this ‘festa teatrale’ with Ferdinando Bertoni’s more sombre Orfeo.

Gluck and Bertoni at Bampton

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Apollo, Euterpe, Melpomene (Gwawr Edwards) and Erato


Required to devise a fitting entertainment to celebrate the second marriage of Archduke Joseph, later Emperor Joseph II, to Maria Josepha of Bavaria, at Schönbrunn in 1765, Gluck offered his regal employerIl Parnaso confuso, a perfectly proportioned single-act setting of a libretto by Metastasio typically drawn from Classical mythology. The action takes place on Mount Parnassus, home of the Muses, where Melpomene (Muse of Tragedy), Erato (Muse of Lyric Poetry) and Euterpe (Muse of Music) lethargically idle the hours away among the sacred groves. The lazy spirits are robustly roused from their lassitude by the arrival of the god, Apollo. With urgency, he shakes them abruptly from their indolence and demands that they compose celebratory entertainments for the earthly marriage of Emperor Joseph and his "stella bavara" (star of Bavaria). Moreover, their creative offerings are required by the very next morning.

Alarmed by the swift invention and resourceful demanded of them, the Muses’ self-doubt is complicated by their competitive drive to outshine each other. And, just when they have put aside their petty jealousies, their brief harmonious collaborations are rudely disrupted by Apollo’s frantic reappearance: the mortal marriage has in fact already taken place and they must present themselves at the matrimonial festivities … now!

Metastasio’s text is atypically ‘light-hearted’, full of topical and self-referential jests: for example, the Muses agonise over the short time available to put the piece together. (Metastasio also takes the opportunity to ridicule two earlier festa teatra by Gluck, Le nozze d’Ercole e d’Ebe and Tetide, the latter having been composed for the Joseph’s first marriage to Isabella of Parma in 1752. Neither had employed a libretto by Metastasio and the Muses resentfully dismiss these works as old-fashioned and uninventive.) It is a perfect vehicle for director Jeremy Gray’s characteristic dry wit. I saw Bampton’s Bury Court performance in August, but — despite the limitations of the stage space and acoustic at St John’s — this performance seemed to me even more persuasive and dramatically engaging.

Bampton_2014_01.gifOrfeo, Euridice, Imeneo and Blessed Spirits

The cuckoo clocks and alpine vistas — a sideways glance at the location of the first performance — inform us that we are in the Swiss Alps; the cool blue lighting casts a glacial glow. The Muses are malingering languidly in a high-altitude hostelry until the arrival of ‘Fritz’ (the dull-witted tavern host, a silent addition to Metastasio’s cast, entertainingly played by Dudley Brewis), bearing a wicker basket of amusements triggers, some self-indulgent frolicking, skipping ropes and chocolate hearts keeping the idle artists occupied. Their trivial inconsequentialities coincide with the commencement of the overture, the bright strains of CHROMA, under the baton of Thomas Blunt, rising from behind stage screens adorned with snowy panoramas.

The idiosyncrasies and foibles of the three Muses — Melpomene (Muse of Tragedy), Erato (Muse of Lyric Poetry) and Euterpe (Muse of Music) were clearly delineated by Gray’s detailed direction and expertly embodied, dramatically and musically, by soprano Gwawr Edwards and mezzo-sopranos Anna Staruskevych and Caryl Hughes, respectively. The demanding, florid writing of Melpomene’s aria, ‘In un mar che non ha sponde’, requires much control, flexibility and stamina. (At the first performance, the four solo roles were taken by four royal princesses — Maria Elisabeth, Maria Amalia, Maria Josepha and Maria Carolina — the youngest of whom was no more than thirteen years old — and Maria Elisabeth, in particular, must have had real vocal talent to meet the challenges of Melpomene’s elaborate arias.) Edwards demonstrated superb breath control, encompassing the long, twisting lines effortlessly, and her gleaming, focused tone conveyed Melpomene’s haughtiness and ‘preciousness’ perfectly. She deftly balanced hauteur and humour, donning fluffy white ear-muffs to drown out her rivalries trivial pursuits and scorning Apollo’s offer of a restorative swig from an outsized tankard; but, Edwards also suggested a genuine melancholic sensibility in the heart of the tragic Muse when, dismayed and morose, she threatened to lay down her pen forever.

Staruskevych engagingly indulged in some mischievous larking about as the happy-go-lucky Erato but complemented blitheness with elegant phrasing and a rich, expressive mezzo tone. After some ham-fisted grappling with Euterpe’s lyre, Staruskevych gracefully communicated Erato’s lyric prowess, supported by a warm, elegant pizzicato accompaniment supplemented by entrancing violas and melodious solo bassoon. Hughes was a resourceful Euterpe, her soprano agile and bright, although occasionally I felt that she was a little under the note. But, she had calm presence in her graceful aria, unflustered by Fritz’s fruitless wrestling with her alpenhorn, and blended well with a lovely oboe obbligato.

Aoife O’Sullivan was outstanding as Apollo, boisterously interrupting the slothful Muses with a flourish of gold cape and a rousing call for creative ingenuity. O’Sullivan’s sweet-toned soprano is relaxed and warm across a wide register and she sensitively shaped the vocal phrases, especially when supporting the higher-lying line of Edwards in their closing duet. O’Sullivan can spin a mean trill too: and was no less adroit when whizzing the alka-seltzer to accompany Edwards’ own sparkling cadential embellishments.

The Orfeo myth may most immediately bring Gluck’s own 1762 opera, but on this occasion it was Bertoni’s 1776 account of the musical demi-god’s mythic mission which completed the operatic pairing on this occasion. In fact, it was at the behest of the castrato Gaetano Guadagni who had created the title role in Gluck’s opera that Bertoni commenced composition of the work; he acknowledged the debt he owed to Gluck, and there are some familiar moods and musical echoes.

Starushkevych was the eponymous quester and O’Sullivan the Euridice whom he pursues and seeks to restore to life; and the two principals and chorus (Edwards and Hughes were joined by tenor Thomas Hereford and baritone Robert Gildon and additional actors) beautifully captured the tenderness and solemnity of Bertoni’s score. The directorial details of the opening scene also did much to convince and engage the listener: sombrely attired mourners have gathered in a subdued chapel to grieve for the lost Euridice, and when Orfeo’s anguish overcomes him a fellow mourner imperceptibly intervenes to steer their choral lament to a consoling conclusion. In this instance the venue was an asset, the imposing columns and cool, shadowy reflections lending an air of restrained formality.

But, despite the gloom, there were flashes of directorial wit and visual gags to temper the despondency: a street new-seller hopes the day’s headline - ‘Snake Death: The Verdict!’ — will tempt a few passers-by, while Orfeo encounters not a raging Styx on his descent to Hadean realms but a team of road-diggers bearing ‘No Entry’, ‘One Way’ and ‘Narrow Road’ signs. A simple lighting design, contrasting infernal red and Elysian green, neatly underpinned the musical narrative.

In the title role, Starushkevych demonstrated why she won the 2012 Handel Singing Competition and also Bampton’s own inaugural Young Singers’ Competition in 2013. She exhibited excellent musico-dramatic nous and vocal stamina. This was a moving performance, in which the mezzo soprano drew upon her wide range and rich tone — her middle register is especially warm and firm — to inspire pity and affection; particularly moving was Orfeo’s third-act lament, accompanied sensitively by oboe, horns and strings. As Euridice, O’Sullivan sang with effortless ease: her airs danced freely and captured Euridice’s purity and innocence. The protagonists’ voices melded affectingly in their Act 3 duet. At Bury Court I had found Hereford’s characterisation of the role of Imeneo (in this production, a priest) a little understated, but here he was more animated — a wise and patient spiritual advisor, consoling and inspiring the bereaved Orfeo. Hereford also projected more effectively than at Bury Court, thus giving greater credibility to his role.

The entire cast communicated Gilly French’s economical and direct translation clearly. The diction was especially clear in Gluck’s secco recitatives which were stylishly accompanied by harpsichordist Charlotte Forrest. Placed behind the stage-screen panels which formed the simple set (in the second half, cold, grey bricks replaced the Alpine ice-peaks), conductor Thomas Blunt and the musicians of CHROMA maintained very good ensemble with the singers in the Gluck, although the Bertoni was less precise in this regard. Perhaps the cast tired a little, or maybe the more complex musical structures and accompanied recitative adopted by Bertoni presented fresh challenges.

But, once again, Bampton Classical Opera made a typically persuasive case for these neglected rarities, skilfully balancing wry irony with serious music-making.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Aoife O’ Sullivan, soprano; Gwawr Edwards, soprano; Caryl Hughes, mezzo soprano; Anna Starushkevych, mezzo soprano; Thomas Herford, tenor; Robert Gildon, baritone; Jeremy Gray, director/designer; Thomas Blunt, conductor; CHROMA. Bampton Classical Opera. St John’s Smith Square, London, Tuesday 16th September 2014.

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