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Performances

Matthew Stiff as Trofonio [Photo courtesy of Bampton Opera]
19 Sep 2015

Salieri: La grotta di Trofonio (Trofonio’s Cave)

Demonised by Pushkin and Peter Shaffer, Antonio Salieri lives in the public imagination as the embittered rival of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — whose genius he lamented and revered in equal measure, and against whom he schemed and plotted at the Emperor Joseph II’s Viennese court.

Salieri: La grotta di Trofonio (Trofonio’s Cave)

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Matthew Stiff as Trofonio

Photos courtesy of Bampton Opera

 

In fact, it was Hofkapellmeister Salieri — teacher of Beethoven, Czerny, Schubert, Meyerbeer and Liszt — who was the ‘celebrity’, enjoying elevated social standing and the artistic esteem of his contemporaries, including, to judge from this superb production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio by Bampton Classical Opera, Mozart himself. For, as scholars such as John Rice have noted, the latter does not seem to have been averse to a little musical and dramatic ‘borrowing’ from Salieri.

The plot of La grotta di Trofonio blends conventional buffo merriment and entanglements with darker supernatural currents. The aristocratic Aristone has two daughters: Ofelia is serious and solemn with a penchant for philosophy; Dori is frivolous and fun-loving, with — in this production — a partiality for amateur dramatics. They are due to wed their beaux, having chosen suitors whose personalities perfectly match their own: the pensive Artemidoro and the playful Plistene respectively. However, an encounter in a magical wood with a meddling ‘master-of-ceremonies’, who tempts first the men and then the girls into his enchanted cave, results in radical transformations of personality which lead the lovers to question the very nature of love itself.

Nicholas Merryweather (Plistene) and Aoife O'Sullivan (Dori).pngNicholas Merryweather as Plistene and Aoife O’Sullivan as Dori

As well as an echo of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream there is also obvious foreshadowing of Mozart’s Così fan tutte and, in its mixture of comic mundanityand the blackly macabre, Don Giovanni. Research by Rice suggests that the network of cross-fertilisation and derivation was complex. In his somewhat unreliable Memoirs, Da Ponte described Salieri as ‘a most cultivated and intelligent man […] whom I loved and esteemed both out of gratitude and by inclination’; but their first collaboration, Il ricco d’un giorno, flopped in 1784 and the composer wasted no time in blaming his literary partner, declaring that he would sooner cut off his own fingers than accept another libretto from Da Ponte. Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio was first staged at Vienna’s Burgtheater in 1785, shortly before Figaro was premiered there, with a libretto by Da Ponte’s main rival, Giambattista Casti. However, the success of Mozart’s Il nozze di Figaro in May 1786 seems to have encouraged Salieri to reconsider his assessment of Da Ponte’s literary skills, for two extant trio drafts discovered by Rice in the National Library in Vienna suggest that Salieri began work on a setting of the Così libretto in the late 1780s. The work was, for reasons we can only speculate, abandoned, and it was Mozart who was to pick up the discarded text. How ironic, then, that Salieri’s La Grotta di Trofonio seems to anticipate the satirical artifice of Mozart’s comedy of 1790.

Both operas possess a meticulously wrought symmetry; moreover, there are striking similarities between some of the ensembles. Even the casts overlapped: having taken the role of Aristone in La Grotta, four years later the veteran buffo bass Francesco Bussani stepped into Don Alfonso’s shoes, while Francesco Benucci swapped the role of Salieri’s magician, Trofonio, for Mozart’s Guglielmo. Cast as the contemplative Artemidoro by Salieri, tenor Vincenzo Calvesi was Mozart’s first Ferrando; restored to his serious self, Artemidoro sings a cavatina, ‘Sognai, o sogno ancor?’, which has much in common with Ferrando’s ‘Un’aura amorosa’.

This first UK-staging in modern times by Bampton Classical Opera was first presented in July, in the Deanery Gardens at Bampton, Oxfordshire. The outdoor setting and summer sunshine lent the evening a light-hearted ebullience which perfectly matched the directorial tone; the latter maintained an admirable balance between irreverent wit and musical sincerity. I wondered how the production would translate to the more sombre Baroque setting of St John’s Smith Square with its monumental pediments and Corinthian columns. But, in the event, with some slight tweaking of the set placement to fit the new dimensions, Trofonio’s ‘cave’ seemed quite at home amid the lofty spaciousness.

In this production, director Jeremy Gray once again demonstrates an impressive ability to employ parallels and allusions which, as well as providing visual wit and invention — both entertaining and erudite — offer fresh, thought-provoking ideas about an opera’s essential ‘meaning’. The opera opens in Aristone’s library, a post-Edwardian domain whose dusty shelves of lofty tomes conceal the patriarch’s secret stash of gin: clearly all is not what it seems, and the young lovers’ demure boaters and bodices will soon give way to less sedate attire. For, with their father’s blessing assured, the engaged couples make the mistake of wandering into the wood, and into the conjuror’s clutches; and, it is not just their personalities which will be translated but Time itself. The bookcases swivel to reveal a blue 1960’s Police Box from which materialises a Tom Baker look-a-like — long stripy scarf, grubby blue frockcoat and a fondness for jelly babies: a slightly down-at-heel Edwardian gent turned eccentric apothecary of the emotions. A spin in the Tardis turns Artemidoro into a long-haired rocker, sporting bandana and flares, flamboyantly strumming air-guitar; a dash through the decades transfigures the demure Ofelia, a flash of a knee-high white boot anticipating her metamorphosis to bopping 60s wild-child in thigh-high A-line shift dress (costumes, Vikki Medhurst).

Christopher Turner, Nicholas Merryweather and Matthew Harrison (Aristone).pngChristopher Turner as Artemidoro, Nicholas Merryweather as Plistene, and Matthew Harrison as Aristone

But, the absurdity and impudence of the staging never got in the way of high musical values or dramatic authenticity. Salieri’s arias were treated with respect, and sung and staged with refinement; similarly, the numerous inventive duets and ensembles were crafted to create dramatic pace and variety. Remarkably, the cast, apparently so suited to their primary manifestations, were equally convincing when subject to Trofonio’s subversive spells, demonstrating impressive diversity and range.

As the spirited Plistine, baritone Nicholas Merryweather was a strong vocal and stage presence, using the text (an amusing and deft translation by Gilly French) with characteristic discernment, and demonstrating a wide range of vocal colours as Plistine’s temperament evolved and revolved. Swapping his stylish blazer for a slightly-too-small, homely cardigan, on exiting The Doctor’s Tardis Merryweather tempered the ardour in his voice to deliver a gently lyrical reflective air, his new-found and utterly convincing gravity and self-possession further reinforced by the rich, low woodwind accompaniment.

Tenor Christopher Turner had no difficulty with the considerable vocal challenges of Artemidoro’s tenor arias: the evenness of tone and colour was impressive during the expansive phrases of his long Act 1 aria; and, if his boogying and grooving was a touch gauche post-transformation, it only added to the charm, reminding us of Artemidoro’s former solemnity.

Irish soprano Aoife O’Sullivan was vivacious as the gregarious, high-spirited Dori. O’Sullivan’s voice is pure and well-centred, and has a lovely sheen which perfectly captured Dori’s joyful breeziness. She and Merryweather were a beguiling comic duo, but the dull and dowdy Dori was just as convincing.

Writing of Bampton’s July performance at the Deanery, I admired the singing of Ukrainian mezzo-soprano Anna Starushkevych, in the role of Ofelia, commenting that her voice seemed to be ‘growing in richness, depth and allure’. It was disappointing to learn, therefore, that problems with a visa meant that Strarushkevych was stranded in the Ukraine (evidently, having the Prime Minister as one of your company’s patrons is no advantage in the face of the administrative intractability of international bureaucracy). The role of Ofelia was ‘split in two’, with Catherine Backhouse singing from the side of the platform and French-born actress Marieke Bernard-Berkel acting the part. Any misgivings were immediacy swept aside, however; and, oddly but somewhat neatly, in an opera whose central trope is the ‘split-personality’, this bipartite presentation was a piquant addition! Backhouse studied on the Opera Studies course at the Guildhall School of Music, and her eloquent, engaging vocal performance demonstrated why she has now been awarded a Fellowship at the GSMD. Her bright, vibrant sound projected well, seeming to emanate from the heart of the drama; she coped with the demands of the role — the rapid, large leaps, for example, in the central section of Ofelia’s first aria — and had the stamina and diversity of tone required in the long aria sung upon Ofelia’s transformation in Act 2.

Bernard-Berkel had been the Assistant Stage Manager for the production (which, in addition to performances at Bampton in July, was also presented at Westonbirt, Gloucestershire, at the end of August). But, even so, given that she had had only a single rehearsal in which to familiarise herself with the details of the intricate stage choreography and timing, her self-assurance and total credibility in the role were noteworthy and outstanding. Apparently, Bernard-Berkel has some experience in silent movies, and this evidently served her well; Ofelia’s shock, in the Act 1 Finale, when confronted with an Artemidoro who has abandoned his bust of Plato for an air-guitar was a perfect picture of disapprobation and distaste.

As the debonair Aristone, baritone James Harrison demonstrated a sharp eye for potential drollery, and an attractive voice. The second Act, in which the female characters’ personality-switch follows that of the men in the preceding Act, might have been repetitive, but Harrison’s strong singing at the start of the Act, when he tries to reassure his daughters, and Aristone’s urgent, compelling appeal to Trofonio at the close, offered a neat dramatic frame for the psychological merry-go-round on which the young lovers spin. Trofonio’s richly scored aria of self-congratulation was also a highpoint of the Act. In the outdoor setting at Bampton I found Matthew Stiff’s Trofonio a tad underwhelming; the role was lyrically sung, and the diction in the recitatives was excellent, but that touch of dark menace was missing. Here, at St. John’s, Stiff made much more of an impact — he created a mysterious amalgam of whimsy and brooding. Trofonio’s first aria, half-way through Act 1, was an alarming invocation; and the small male chorus successfully evoked the ‘invisible spirits’ that the dark magician summons. Stiff’s baritone carried well, and he used both text and voice effectively, countering the parody of his time-travelling impersonation, to powerfully conjure a demonic world of the black arts — indeed, at the end of the opera, Trofonio boasts that he is judge and master of the Underworld and of the Devil!

St John’s is not an ideal venue for opera, and one problem that has to be resolved is the matter of where to place the orchestra. Bampton have experimented with various arrangements over the years; here, the musicians of CHROMA, conducted by Paul Wingfield, were placed behind the set. Whatever difficulties this might have presented, the singers dealt with them confidently and Wingfield had an excellent command of both the overall dramatic pace and the expressive shaping of particular numbers, allowing for moments of stillness within the prevailing muddle and mayhem. Also, I found that Salieri’s wonderful writing for the woodwind was even more immediate and characterful than it had been at Bampton. The clarinets and bassoons introduced Ofelia’s first cavatina, in which she sings of her devotion for Artemidoro, with a delicious sweetness and sentimentality, worthy of the Countess’s Act 2 aria in Figaro. As Artemidoro wandered through the forest, nearing the sorcerer’s supernatural ‘cave’, oboes and flutes conveyed a bucolic serenity which would soon be overturned by the magical machinations.

Assistant Director (movement) Triona Adams appeared as the non-singing, put-upon maid who, having carried out endless chores — serving tea, arranging wedding bunting — threw caution to the wind and, in the closing moments, accepted Trofonio’s invitation into the Time-machine. The Tardis can transport its occupants back or forth to any point in time, or to any place. Bampton Classical Opera’s time-travels to the eighteenth-century have so often led to valuable operatic discoveries and resurrections; this trip to Trofonio’s Grotto unearthed some real magic.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production information:

Aristone — James Harrison, Dori — Aoife O’Sullivan, Ofelia — sung by Catherine Backhouse and acted by Marieke Bernard-Berkel, Artemidoro — Christopher Turner, Plistene — Nichola Merryweather, Trofonio — Matthew Stiff, Ladies’ Maid — Triona Adams; Director/designer — Jeremy Gray, Conductor Paul Wingfield, Assistant director (movement) — Triona Adams, Costumes — Vikki Medhurst; Répétiteur — Marek Ruszczynski. Bampton Classical Opera. St John’s Smith Square, London, Tuesday, 15th September 2015.

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