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Reviews

Bampton Classical Opera at St John’s Smith Square
13 Sep 2017

The School of Jealousy: Bampton Classical Opera bring Salieri to London

In addition to fond memories of previous beguiling productions, I had two specific reasons for eagerly anticipating this annual visit by Bampton Classical Opera to St John’s Smith Square. First, it offered the chance to enjoy again the tunefulness and wit of Salieri’s dramma giocoso, La scuola de’ gelosi (The School of Jealousy), which I’d seen the company perform so stylishly at Bampton in July.

Bampton Classical Opera at St John’s Smith Square

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Matthew Sprange (Blasio) and Thomas Hereford (The Lieutenant)

Photo credit: Anthony Hall/Bampton Classical Opera

 

Second, summer downpours having necessitated removal into the Church of St Mary’s, the nave of which was too small to accommodate BCO’s set, this performance at SJSS provided an opportunity to see the opera as envisaged by director/designer Jeremy Gray, in a simple staging the design of which evoked the requisite air of intrigue and affectation. Certainly, the performance which unfolded fulfilled both my cravings; and Gray’s set - exterior stone becoming luxurious damask wallpaper at the twist of a hinge or two - was beautifully composed and stylishly complemented Vikki Medhurst’s Regency-style costumes. Yet, I came away contemplating the difficulties of giving performances of a work over a time-span of a couple of months in several venues (the opera was performed at Westonbirt School in Gloucestershire in late August) that are so different in dimension, acoustic and practicability.

That’s not to suggest that Bampton’s performance offered anything less than their customary integrity, charm and slickness; just that, I was surprised just how hard it was for the company to reproduce the intimacy and immediacy that was generated inside the beautiful but fairly cramped church at Bampton - through whose roof the deluge dripped courtesy of some lead pilfering shortly before - on a wet July evening when compromise and contingency seemed to inspire a spontaneity and piquancy which was sometimes missing at SJSS.

Bampton Classical Opera have found Salieri’s operatic legacy to be a fruitful source during their forays through the lesser-known repertory of the eighteenth century. The company gave the UK premières of Falstaff in 2003 and two years ago their production of La grotta di Trofonio was richly praised. This year they’ve resurrected an opera, written in 1778, which must have been on Lorenzo da Ponte’s radar when he penned Così fan tutte (or, La scola degli amanti, the librettist’s preferred title), with its jealous rants and rages, amorous criss-crossing, and awkward reconciliations. La scuola de’ gelosi, with several new arias, was the work which inaugurated Emperor Joseph’s new Viennese buffo troupe in 1783. And, the casts of La scuola and Così overlapped: Francesco Benucci was Blasio in Salieri’s opera, and sang Guglielmo inCosì; Francesco Bussani followed his turn as the Count in La Scuola with Don Alfonso in Così. Nancy Storace, a Mozart favourite who created Susanna in Figaro was Salieri’s Countess. [1]

Caterino Mazzolà’s libretto tells of marital discord and dissatisfaction, supplemented with a heavy dose of class snobbery. The grain-dealer Blasio, prone to prowling about in the dark intent on catching his wife Ernestina with a lover, is overcome with paranoid jealousy and purchases a padlock to lock her indoors. Meanwhile, Countess Bandiera pines, jilted by her philandering husband whose chief amusement is wooing the wives of jealous husbands - her indignation deepened by the fact that her husband is wooing a pleb! She disguises herself as a gypsy fortune-teller, reads her husband’s palm and, her identity disclosed, delights in his discomfort. Bourgeoisie and aristocrats mingle and madness ensues - quite literally when Blasio finds in an asylum, witnessing the fate of those whose marriages have been poisoned by mistrust. The Lieutenant advises Blasio and the Countess to get revenge by inciting their spouses’ jealousy. Accusations rile, appearances prove deceptive, apologies follow; eventually, an uneasy social and marital equilibrium is restored.

Chalkley and Fisher.jpgNathalie Chalkley (Ernestina) and Alessandro Fisher (Count). Photo credit: Anthony Hall/Bampton Classical Opera.

The splendid young cast revelled in the opera’s wiliness and wisdom, although the SJSS acoustic diminished the clarity of the diction, meaning that the wry rhymes of Jeremy Gray’s and Gilly French’s dry, crisp translation raised fewer laughs than they had done at Bampton. But, the obligatory topical references hit the target, as this opera about false affairs inserted some ‘fake news’. When Blasio snatched what he thought was a letter from an admirer from Ernestina’s hands, he found himself reading a newspaper report: ‘Mexico may be blockaded with a wall to stop migration … This may cause some agitation’, and he pondered ‘Is it open to discussion, Mister Trump is surely Russian?’

Bampton Blasio.jpgMatthew Sprange (Blasio). Photo credit: Anthony Hall/Bampton Classical Opera.

At Bampton, Alessandro Fisher’s ‘Casanova’ Count, had made a flamboyant entrance, festooning the ladies of the audience with silver roses as he extolled the gallery of girls whom he likes to goggle: ‘Here you see sophistication; over there is calm and haughty. In another situation, there is one who’s rude and naughty. One is serious, one mysterious; one is slim, another grimmer.’ One cannot but admire Gray and French’s adeptness with telling internal rhyme! SJSS thwarted attempts to make a similarly ingratiating impact here, but Fisher’s performance was confident and consummate: he deserved the applause which his arias kindled.

Matthew Sprange, as Blasio, had the measure of the role’s conversational style and his baritone was focused, the phrases having excellent musical and dramatic direction. Nathalie Chalkley was recovering from flu but this only marginally impinged on her vivacious portrayal of Ernestina’s sassy self-confidence and self-determination. At Bampton, I had found Rhiannon Llewellyn’s intonation occasionally less than centred and I detected a slight breathiness in the ascents; but, here she certainly assailed the top Cs in both her arias with insouciance, though again I felt that she didn’t always nail the true heart of a pitch.

Count and Countess BCO.jpgAlessandro Fisher (Count) and Rhiannon Llewellyn (Countess). Photo credit: Anthony Hall/Bampton Classical Opera.

I enjoyed the self-assured eye-brow raising and elegant phrasing of Samuel Pantcheff’s Lumaca (Blasio’s servant) at Bampton and have recently praised Pantcheff’s performances with The Opera Box : here, again, he stood out as a singer-actor who is never switched off, who is constantly seeking to interact with his fellow cast. The intimacy of St Mary’s heightened such interactions with Kate Howden’s Carlotta, the Countess’s maid, yet here the subtleties sometimes didn’t make the same impact; but Howden’s lovely mezzo - full of character, feeling and insight - suggests she is a singer to watch. Thomas Herford pronounced the Lieutenant’s motto of feminine fidelity (anticipating Così’s Don Alfonso?) - ‘Chi vuol nella femmina/ Trovar fedelta,/ La lasci padrona/ Di sua liberta. (He who wishes to find fidelity in a woman should allow her to remain mistress of her liberty) - with elegance, as the libretto’s sole words of dispassionate common sense were contradicted by cynical counter-voice of the ‘cuckolding’ horns.

At Bampton in July, the Orchestra of Bampton Classical Opera were placed in the South Transept and we were able to enjoy the players’ bright sound and Salieri’s noteworthy musical detail. Although in some of the busier ensembles there were a few anxious glances from the cast, seeking confirmation, conductor Anthony Kraus ran a tight ship and the proximity of the orchestral sound added to the zippiness of the performance. At SJSS, with the players of CHROMA seated behind the set and the cast relying on two monitors, the ‘pit’/stage coordination was no less consistent, but there was an understandable sense of ‘playing it safe’: there was less risk-taking in the vibrant act finales, and generally the tempos felt less urgent, the dramatic propulsion less urgent.

The School of Jealousy was the composer’s most oft-performed opera, winning international popularity; when it reached London in 1786, the Musical Post and Daily Advertiser declared it ‘a masterly composition, which does great honour to Salieri’. Thanks are due to Bampton Classical Opera for allowing us to enjoy its charm.

Claire Seymour

Salieri: The School of Jealousy
Bampton Classical Opera

Blasio - Matthew Sprange, Ernestina - Nathalie Chalkley, Count Bandiera - Alessandro Fisher, Countess Bandiera - Rhiannon Llewellyn, Lumaca - Samuel Pantcheff, Carlotta - Kate Howden, The Lieutenant - Thomas Hereford; director/designer - Jeremy Gray, conductor - Anthony Kraus, costume designer - Vikki Medhurst, CHROMA.

St John’s Smith Square, London; Tuesday 12th September 2017



[1] Bruce Alan Brown and John A. Rice present an informative account of Salieri’s attempts to set da Ponte’s Così libretto, and of the links between theLa scuola de’ gelosi and Mozart’s opera, in ‘Salieri’s Così fan tutte’ in Cambridge Opera Journal Vol.8/1 (March 1996): 17-43.

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