Orfeo

Bertoni

Information

Ferdinando Bertoni

Orfeo (UK modern-times premiere)

Azione teatrale in three acts
Libretto by Ranieri de' Calzabigi
English translation by Gilly French

The Deanery garden, Bampton: 18, 19 July 2014
The Barn at Bury Court: 12 August 2014
Westonbirt School: 25 August 2014
St John's, Smith Square: 16 September 2014

Cast

Orfeo Anna Starushkevych
Euridice Aoife O'Sullivan
Imeneo Thomas Herford
   
Ensemble Gwawr Edwards, Caryl Hughes, 
  Thomas Herford, Robert Gildon
   
Conductor Thomas Blunt
Director Jeremy Gray

 

Synopsis

Ferdinando Bertoni, organist at St Marks, Venice, was treading on dangerous ground when he agreed to compose a new setting of Calzabigi's libretto Orfeo ed Euridice, already so successfully set by Gluck.  But Bertoni's insistent patron was none other than Gaetano Guadagni, the international castrato superstar who had created the role of Orfeo for Gluck in 1762 (and for whom Handel rewrote arias in Messiah). In Guadagni's opinion, Gluck simply didn't show off his voice to best advantage, and he wanted music more expressive and ambitious.  Bertoni well met the challenge in this wonderfully passionate and powerful setting of the immortal myth of love, death and music.

The musician Orpheus, only recently married, mourns the tragic death of his wife Euridice who has been killed by a snake.  Even as he rages against the gods for their injustice, he is visited by the God of marriage, Imeneo (Hymen) who allows him to descend to the underworld to regain his bride and return her to the land of the living.  But there is a condition: Orpheus must not look at his wife - or explain why - until he has brought her back to earth.

At the gates to Hades, Orpheus' plight and the beauty of his music calm even the Furies, who allow him to pass into their gloomy realm.  In the idyllic Elysian Fields, Orpheus is charmed by the tranquility of the blessed spirits, who eventually bring Euridice to him.  The joy of their reunion quickly turns to pain and recrimination as Euridice cannot understand her husband's seemingly cold behaviour.  When her emotional turmoil causes her to faint, Orpheus' will breaks and he impulsively turns to her, only to lose her again to a second and more bitter death. Without her, Orpheus can only long for death himself, but his intense grief causes even the gods to think again - Euridice is once again restored, and the opera ends with a hymn of praise to Love. 

Reviews

Rare gems shine bright
The Oxford Times, 24 July 2014

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Rare gems shine bright

The Oxford Times, 24 July 2014

Birthday boy Gluck is largely ignored this year - in the UK, at least - with few apparently interested in the Austrian composer's 300th anniversary.

Step forward adventurous Bampton Classical Opera, who are not only marking the occasion but have chosen to do so by giving the first UK staging of his little-known gem, Il Parnaso confuso (The Muses confused), and teaming it with Venetian composer Bertoni's Orfeo - a work that uses the same libretto as Gluck's more famous version.

Renowned for unearthing operatic rarities, Bampton Opera founders Jeremy Gray and Gilly French have produced some delightful treats on the Deanery's secluded lawns over the years.  This year's offering possibly ranks among the best, with two charming pieces that complement each other and benefit from Gray's slick, unfussy direction and a simple set that ingeniously adapts for both operas.

Most excitingly, there is fine young talent mixed in with some of the favourites.  Mezzo Anna Starushkevych, winner of Bampton's inaugural Young Singers' Competition last year, impressed, switching easily from a playful Muse in Il Parnaso confuso to an anguished, lovelorn Orfeo in the Bertoni piece, singing both with equal warmth and conviction.

Soprano Aoife O'Sullivan, a Bampton regular, is equally impressive in the transition from Apollo, who has to cajole the Muses into entertaining for a Royal wedding in Il Parnaso confuso, to a sweetly-sung, velnerable Euridice in Orfeo.

Strong performances, too, from another Bampton regular, Caryl Hughes, and newcomer Gwawr Edwards, as the other Muses, while Thomas Herford and Robert Gildon provide robust support in Orfeo.

The Bampton orchestra, as ever, accompanies with spirit and commitment under the baton of Thomas Blunt

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Nicola Lisle

 

...performed elegantly ...directorial wit
Opera, October 2014

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...performed elegantly ...directorial wit

Opera, October 2014

Gluck’s 300th birthday has passed largely unremarked in the UK, so Bampton Classical Opera’s double-bill, which paired the composer’s Il Parnaso confuso with Ferdinando Bertoni’s Orfeo, went some way to rectifying this omission.

 

Il Parnaso confusowas one of three works performed, in the space of a single fortnight in 1765, to celebrate the second marriage of Archduke Joseph (later Emperor Joseph II) to Maria Josepha of Bavaria, at Schönbrunn, Vienna.  Bampton gave the first UK performance of the single-act work at the Purcell Room in 2011, and this was a welcome fully-staged account.  Metastasio’s action takes place on Mount Parnassus, but the director Jeremy Gray’s simple, effective designs transformed the small stage of Bury Court Barn into an Alpine hostelry, where the nonchalant idling of the three Muses was rudely interrupted by the god Apollo, demanding that they compose an inspired entertainment suitable to honour the eartly marriage of Emperor Joseph and his ‘stella bavara’ (‘star of Bavaria’), which will take place the next morning.

The contrasting characters and aspirations of the Muses – Melpomene (Tragedy), Erato (Lyric Poetry) and Euterpe (Music) – were deftly conveyed by the soprano Gwawr Edwards and the mezzo-sopranos Anna Starushkevych and Caryl Hughes respectively, their distinctive vocal colours persuasively matching their characters’ idiosyncrasies.  Aoife O’Sullivan was an animated Apollo; her sweet-toned soprano pleasingly completed the female quartet, and she displayed a charming and convincing dramatic presence.  Two unscripted additional jesting personnel permitted further gentle jesting.  Gilly French’s unfussy translation was crisply communicated and the orchestra performed elegantly, the conductor Thomas Blunt adopting judicious tempos which, together with some shrewd cuts to the lengthy da capo arias, fluently sustained the dramatic momentum.

A cast of three principals and the chorus (Edwards abd Hughes were joined by the tenor Thomas Herford and baritone Robert Gildon to embody Orfeo’s fellow mourners, the Furies and the Blessed Spirits) illuminated the gravity and tenderness of Bertoni’s score for his 1776 Orfeo, while once again Gray’s directorial wit tempered the prevailing sadness with a dash of light-heartedness.  This Orfeo was not hindered by the Styx; rather, a series of signs illustrating narrow roads, one-way streets and road humps indicated the more mundane obstructions to his journey into the underworld, where a team of infernal road-workers were digging the Hadean pit.  A few simple changes niftily converted the Gluck set, and some vibrant lighting effects enhanced the juxtaposition of the somber grey church, blood-stained netherworld and verdant Elysium.

In the title role, Starushkevych demonstrated wh she had won the 2012 Handel Singing Competition in 2013.  Equipped with an immaculate technique, she can traverse a wide range, from a velvety top through a rich middle to a sonorous contralto register, and her dramatically intense performance communicated powerfully. As Euridice, O’Sullivan sang with clarity and control.  Herford sang the role of Imeneo (here a priest) with a pleasing, sweet tone which, though a little lacking in projection, blended particularly well in the ensembles.

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Claire Seymour

 

...persuasive and dramatically engaging
Opera Today, September 2014

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...persuasive and dramatically engaging

Opera Today, September 2014

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.

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.

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 Herford 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.

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Claire Seymour

 

...impressive... stylish, committed...
Boulezian, September 2014

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...impressive... stylish, committed...

Boulezian, September 2014

The response, or rather lack thereof, of London's ‘major’ opera companies to the Gluck anniversary has been nothing short of a disgrace. It would not matter, if they deigned to perform his operas the rest of the time, but they might at least have made token amends this year: instead, absolute silence has reigned, whilst the more artistically pressing business of endless revivals of uninteresting stagings of still more uninteresting works by Verdi and Donizetti has continued apace. After all, a season without a surfeit of Traviatas  is no season at all for some houses; it is as if Gluck’s reforms, let alone Wagner’s, had never happened. Bampton Classical Opera, however, has performed a real service, in mounting the first British staged performances – at least that is the claim, and I have found no evidence to the contrary – of Il Parnaso confuso. Performances, especially in this country, of Gluck’s reform operas are so thin on the ground that it seems an almost indecent luxury to see one of his other works. It should not, however, and such works require no apology, simply a hearty welcome – and of course good performances.

This one-act festa teatrale, here performed in tandem with Bertoni’s Orfeo (on which more anon), was composed to a libretto by Metastasio, for performance at Schönbrunn in 1765. For the marriage of the Archduke Joseph, shortly to be Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor, to Maria Josepha of Bavaria, Gluck was commanded to write no fewer than three works, the others being a full-scale opera, Telemaco, ossia L’isola di Circe, and a pantomime-ballet, Sémiramis. (If we think his operas neglected, just consider the fate of his ballets, with the partial exception of Don Juan.) The concept of Il Parnaso confuso was that it would be a surprise for the wedded couple, performed by four of Joseph’s sisters and directed from the harpsichord by his brother, Leopold. Were this Strauss and Hoffmansthal we should doubtless all be hymning the metatheatricality of a work in which four of the Muses are suddenly called upon by Apollo to provide an entertainment for Joseph and his ‘stella bavaria’ and hasten to do so, only to find out that the wedding has already taken place and that their services are required not very soon but immediately. Indeed, there are more than shades avant la lettre of Ariadne auf Naxos. (Strauss, far from incidentally, was a great devotee of Gluck’s operas.) That the libretto is by Metastasio, and mocks as old-fashioned and merely conventional earlier Gluck works, written for Joseph’s first marriage in 1752, offers irony aplenty, especially when one considers the shortly-to-be-penned Preface to Alceste, in which the Caesarian Court Poet would find the reformist boot very much on the other foot. Both Gluck and Metastasio show a light, even comedic touch that confounds such expectations as we might generally have today.

Performances did this work – perhaps slight, but far from negligible – proud. Thomas Blunt showed a true, and rare, sense of eighteenth-century style, which is certainly not what many people nowadays think it to be. Tempi were well-chosen, orchestral colour within its bounds well balanced, and the singers well supported. The musicians of CHROMA are of course equally to be credited; small numbers notwithstanding, the band, placed behind the stage, never sounded meagre, the acoustic of St John’s Smith Square doubtless proving of considerable assistance. Jeremy Gray’s production offered an Alpine Parnassus, replete with Dirndl, Lederhosen, and beer, which allowed the action – and above all, the music – to proceed without unnecessary interference and yet which, at the same time, provided a witty framing for further metatheatrical reflection, should one have wished to indulge. (The question of Gluck and ‘nationality’ is complex and fascinating.) All of the singers had a good deal to offer, Gwawr Edwards being perhaps my pick of the bunch, the surprisingly difficult technical demands – how did the princesses cope with them? – having little fear for her, but never being a mere end in themselves. She and her sisters, played by Anna Starushkeych and Caryl Hughes distinguished well between their respective roles, without attempting unduly anachronistic ‘characterisation’ in the modern sense. Aoife O’Sullivan’s Apollo sounded perhaps a little strained at times, but otherwise impressed.

The passage from opera seria to ‘reformism’ was neither linear nor uniform, as both the ‘reform operas’ and chronology will attest. Il Parnaso confuso was composed after Orfeo, though I should defy anyone to guess so. Moreover, just as Metastasio’s libretti would be set by a multitude of composers – Mozart had at least forty predecessors, Gluck included, when it came to La clemenza di Tito – Gluck was not the only composer for Ranieri de’ Calzabigi’s Orfeo. Here we heard what was intriguingly billed as the first ‘modern-times’ performance of Ferdinando Bertoni’s 1776 version in the United Kingdom; I can only assume that there must therefore have been an eighteenth-century performance somewhere in this country, and should be grateful for confirmation and details. Doubtless the strangeness would have been greater had we not heard the work in English translation, but even so, it is a slightly odd business hearing a text – even when cut – one knows so well, set to different, yet clearly ‘influenced’ music. The impression is generally of pleasant, perhaps more ‘up-to-date’ music, somewhere between imitation Gluck and Johann Christian Bach, but deeper acquaintance might possibly ascertain greater individuality (or not). It is well-crafted and certainly to be preferred to many of those aforementioned undistinguished nineteenth-century works our houses continue to foist upon us. An exception seemed to be offered by certain odd tonal jumps in the recitatives; without consulting a score, I cannot say whether that was Bertoni’s fault, or a matter of the performing edition. Maybe it would have been too much to hear both Orfeo settings back to back, but it would have been intriguing: an idea for another occasion, perhaps?  

Again, performances were generally impressive. Blunt, clearly a force to be reckoned with, and someone from whom I hope to hear more soon, again led his players in a stylish, committed performance, which enabled parallels with as well as distinctions from Gluck to be drawn. Gray’s modern-dress production again permitted the work to progress without fuss. The lion’s share of the singing is Orfeo’s; here, Anna Starushkeych was a little more variable, perhaps a little tired at times, but nevertheless gave a good sense of what was at stake. Thomas Herford and Aoife O’Sullivan provided very good support, as did the small soloists’ chorus. Charles Burney’s doubts concerning Bertoni’s inventiveness may have been justified, but so, for the most part, was his discernment of a style that was ‘natural, correct, and judicious; often pleasing, and sometimes happy,’ both in work and here in performance.

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Mark Berry

 

lovely sounds... bright visualisation... strong performances
Bachtrack, September 2014

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lovely sounds... bright visualisation... strong performances

Bachtrack, September 2014

A bright Alpine vision of fresh air, blue skies and snowy mountains: Bampton Classical Opera's production of Il Parnaso Confuso, designed and directed by Jeremy Gray, moves Mount Parnassus closer to Austria than Greece, with the Muses in dirndls, Apollo in lederhosen, and an alphorn on stage. Written by Gluck (whose 300th anniversary it is this year) for the occasion of the second marriage of Archduke Joseph (later Emperor Joseph II) to Maria Josepha of Bavaria in 1765, the original première might be said to have been the ultimate in royal entertainment. The principal soloists were four royal princesses, while the conductor, Leopold, was the emperor's own younger brother.

Bampton Classical Opera's UK staged première instead showcases four young sopranos who all sing with skill and rich tone, creating an hour of elegant harmonies: the piece consists more of situation than action, but is charmingly realised. We begin with three Muses, Melpomene (Gwawr Edwards), Erato (Anna Starushkevych) and Euterpe (an energetic and magnetic Caryl Hughes) at leisure on Mount Parnassus. Suddenly, they are interrupted by Apollo (Aoife O’Sullivan), who requests that they produce an entertainment for the Archduke's wedding the very next day. As the Muses contemplate different ways to entertain the Habsburg court in a series of pretty arias, Apollo rushes back to say that the wedding has, in fact, already taken place and they must hurry at once to the court, causing some irritation amongst the Muses who do not like to be hurried. Tranquility is, however, restored by some quick-thinking compliments from Apollo, and the Muses descend from Parnassus to smile, finally, on the Archduke's wedding. In other words – very little happens, really, apart from some lovely singing. 

The most extraordinary (and interesting) feature of this festa teatrale is that it has an original Italian libretto by Pietro Metastasio, who was more usually Gluck's aesthetic enemy. Most of Gluck's mature work, in conjunction with his gifted and outspoken librettist Calzabigi, is designed in direct opposition to Metastasio's highly ornate and ornament-focused lyrics. Here, however, Gluck worked directly with Metastasio. Translated into English by Gilly French, moments of Metastasio's wit and quickness still remain, but the words are largely lost in the singing. The piece is therefore very hard for the audience to follow in any detail, despite an interesting introductory essay in the programme, particularly as the plot is so scant. Given the rare interest of this work lies in its libretto, it felt like a missed opportunity to be so near it, and yet not to be able to engage directly with the text: to have heard it in Italian, with an English translation at hand to follow, would have given us a far better chance to see what it is really about. Nevertheless, we enjoyed some accomplished singing, in which Gwawr Edwards as Melpomene particularly stood out, lyrically and dramatically. Some light relief was provided at times by silent physical comedy from Dudley Brewis as Fritz, although his actions sometimes seemed more distracting than otherwise.

Bertoni's Orfeo, setting the same libretto Calzabigi wrote for Gluck's version of the story, is a piece with much more plot, direction, and dramatic energy, and in this second half of the evening Anna Starushkevych's Orfeo reigned supreme. Starushkevych's characterisation was nothing short of superb, depicting Orfeo as a very modern man haunted by grief, angrily refusing to accept the death of his wife Euridice (an affecting and soft-voiced Aoife O'Sullivan). Too often Orfeo, the ultimate ambassador for the power of music to enchant us, becomes an artistic cipher, a mere metaphor for the power of art in an ugly world, risking exceptional dullness – Starushkevych allowed him individuality and humanity which made his journey feel horrifying, eerie and relevant. Jeremy Gray's skene-like set for Il Parnaso Confuso cleverly doubled for Orfeo, moving us from a modern church funeral service to Hades, lit powerfully first in red to signify the Underworld, then green for the Elysian Fields. Thomas Herford was a sincere and earnest Imeneo, a wonderfully composed foil to the anguished Orfeo. Caryl Hughes, Gwawr Edwards and Robert Gildon took the smaller roles as Orfeo's friends, Furies, and Blessed Spirits haunting Elysium (which seemed to be imagined as an unending summer lunch party circa 1970), helpfully delineated by a series of lightning costume changes (Fiona Hodges and Pauline Smith). In his largely minimal setting, Gray used choreography to suggest much of the action, creating strong visual effects with swaying and twisting bodies to oppose, trap or impede Orfeo and Euridice as they tried to find their way out of hell. Again, Gilly French's translation was good where we could hear it, but often lost in the lyric sweep of the music.

We were treated throughout the evening to some wonderful playing by the CHROMA ensemble, who made a sweet and resonant sound, led by Marcus Barcham-Stevens as first violin. Thomas Blunt, conducting, held the ensemble and cast together well for most of the evening, although occasionally some singers would get a little forward or behind. After a summer of performing these pieces with The Orchestra of Bampton Classical Opera, however, it may have been difficult for the cast to get sufficient rehearsal time with CHROMA before this single performance at St John's Smith Square.  

Altogether, Bampton Classical Opera gave us an evening full of lovely sounds within a fresh, bright visualisation of these two rare pieces, featuring some strong performances from a cast of talented young singers: if only we could have had the words too, we could have had it all.

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Charlotte Valori

 

...particularly expressive playing
Fringe Opera, September 2014

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...particularly expressive playing

Fringe Opera, September 2014

This year marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Christoph Willibald Gluck, one of the most prominent 18th century composers. Yet this fact has rarely been acknowledged by British musical society and his works remain neglected and rarely performed in the UK. Until now, that is.

Bampton Classical Opera is a company determined to amend this, as well as shed light on other neglected works from the 18th century. Introducing these operas to the uninitiated cannot be an easy job, due to their near total omission from the bigger Opera houses, but they make it easier by performing in English. Better still, at £15 its affordable.

Tonight’s double bill of Gluck’s Il Parnaso Confuso and Bertoni’s Orfeo introduces these works in the perfect setting: St John Smith’s Square is not only intimate, but this historic venue also happens to be celebrating its 300th birthday this year.

Il Parnaso Confuso is light, airy, and fun. The storyline is simple – three Muses are invited to play at the Emperor’s wedding, but their joy quickly fades when they discover the wedding is the following day. In the end, the Muses have to put aside their artistic snobbery and get on with it.

Soprano and National Opera Studio graduate Aoife O’Sullivan is highly amusing and perfectly suited in her role of the beer swigging, brace-wearing Apollo. The three Muses are musically excellent, each shining in their respective arias – particularly Anna Starushkevych as Erato, whose voice soars around the room with ‘The Harp Within - and Welsh soprano Gwawr Edwards’ prompts laughs as the neurotic Melpomene. Seeing her character break down over the possibility of the wedding the next day has to be the guiltiest pleasure of the performance.

The Butler isn’t always included in adaptations of the opera, and here director Jeremy Gray’s use of the character isn’t effective enough to justify his presence. Cluttering up the stage for the most part and being the only character that didn’t sing, he detracts from the beautiful serenades of the other characters. As for the costumes, are we on Mount Parnassus or seeing the American image of Austria? It’s a little too edelweiss for me. Despite this, Il Parnaso Confuso is a suitably fun, well-performed opera for a crisp autumn evening.

Bertoni’s Orfeo was a much less cheerful affair. Orpheus descends into the Underworld to bring back his dead wife, Eurydice. He is not allowed to look at her as they climb back up to Earth, otherwise she remains in the Underworld forever.

What a contrast to Il Parnaso Confuso. Where the previous opera was busy with characters, Orpheus is alone for most of the time. The role was originally written for the composer’s castrato friend, and here is sung by mezzo-soprano Anna Starushkevych. She does an excellent job, brilliantly portraying Orpheus’ grief and despair. It was hard to feel sympathy for Eurydice, however, as she is rather annoying. The arguments between the two in the Underworld feels over the top and a mere method to ‘create tension’. One had to wonder why he didn’t just leave her there…

The opera relies heavily on the vocal and dramatic skills of Orfeo. The parts where all the characters sing together are beautiful, and fill that intimate space with stunning sounds. I just wish it had happened more often!

Both operas are superbly accompanied by the London-based CHROMA and Bampton, with particularly expressive playing from Charlotte Forrest on the harpsichord who brought well-timed comic relief and great sadness.

It’s clear the performers are having a blast and I thoroughly enjoyed watching them. What a perfect way to commemorate a talented composer like Gluck!

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Charlotte Woodley

 

Production Photos