(Bampton Classical Opera, 22 July 2016)
On a warm summer evening, the village of Bampton in Oxfordshire is almost indecently beautiful. The golden stone glows in the sunlight, the leaves look even greener against blue skies dotted with fluffy clouds, and flocks of swifts dart at dusk around the church tower. But one thing sets the village apart from its Cotswold rivals. Every summer, the Deanery garden is transformed by an outdoor stage and Bampton Classical Opera put on productions of lesser-known Baroque music. Past years have featured a wealth of tantalising rarities and this season saw the performance of two one-act operas, given the overall heading Divine Comedies: first, Gluck’s Philemon and Baucis and, second, Arne’s Judgement of Paris.
Thanks to a travel schedule of military precision, I made it down from London in time to hear Jeremy Gray’s pre-performance talk, which took place in the village church.* Gray is one half (the other being Gilly French) of the husband-and-wife team who track down, prepare, design and direct these operas. Their achievement is all the more remarkable considering they’ve both been full-time teachers since the company’s foundation in 1993. Astonishing. Gray’s introduction was very helpful for me, since I’m not familiar with either opera, but it also did much to show me the knowledge, humour and passion for accessibility that go into making Bampton’s productions such fun.
And then it was off to the Deanery for a pre-show picnic: time to unleash the Scotch eggs, crack open the prosecco and savour a gorgeous English summer afternoon. It simply couldn’t have been lovelier. As the clock rolled round towards 7pm, I looked forward to having certain questions answered. How would Arne stand up against Gluck? How would the new translation commissioned for the Gluck measure up to William Congreve’s early 18th-century English libretto for the Arne? And, most importantly, why was I staring at a stage that was set up to show the arrivals hall of an airport? Luckily, all was about to become clear.
* Fun fact: Bampton Church is used as the village church in Downton Abbey, as several people told me. It’s a matter of great local pride, and Bampton library currently has an exhibition of Downton paraphernalia.
PHILEMON AND BAUCIS: CHRISTOPH WILLIBALD GLUCK (1769)
Let those who are beloved of the gods
be gods themselves; let those who reverence
the gods be reverenced as gods as well.
Ovid, Metamorphoses, VIII
Maria-Amalia of Austria really didn’t want to marry Ferdinand, Duke of Parma, in 1769. Not only did she not love him, she was actually passionately in love with someone else, namely Prince Charles of Zweibrücken. But, unfortunately for Maria-Amalia, she was the daughter of the formidable Empress Maria-Teresa (and sister of Marie-Antoinette), and so love didn’t come into it. Her wedding to Ferdinand was appropriately splendid, crowned with a four-act sequence of mini-operas called Le feste d’Apollo, composed by the court favourite Gluck. Philemon and Baucis formed the second instalment. Devoted to the themes of martial harmony and the crucial importance of goodness and charity, it was eminently suited to a wedding. But sadly, in this particular case, its magic didn’t work. Maria-Amalia and Ferdinand’s marriage lasted for 33 years, but they were so different in temperament that love never quite managed to take root. The energetic Maria-Amalia gambled, had a penchant for handsome young bodyguards, and allegedly sneaked out dressed as a man, while her unassuming husband devoted himself to the true love of his life: hanging tapestries. Remarkably, they nevertheless managed to have nine children.
If you know your Ovid, you’ll be familiar with the story of the opera. Jupiter and Mercury come down to earth to test the goodness of mankind and, having been sent from pillar to post without a kindly word, come to the house of the elderly Philemon and Baucis. These two go out of their way to welcome, warm and feed their unexpected guests and, in return for their hospitality, Jupiter saves their house alone from a devastating flood which wipes out their impious neighbours. Transforming the house into a magnificent temple (to himself, of course), he appoints them guardians and grants their wish that they should die at the same hour so that neither must live without the other. Naturally, the opera’s libretto (by Giuseppe Maria Pagnini) takes some liberties. Philemon and Baucis are no longer old, but a radiant young couple about to be married, and Jupiter has ditched Mercury and come travelling on his own. But Bampton, mischievously, transforms it even more.
We’re in an arrivals lounge in Phrygia, where tourists have just landed on a budget airline (‘Arne Air’, giving you a taste of the tongue-in-cheek humour). As the weary travellers file in, they are welcomed by the security guard Philemon and his fiancée Baucis, who doubles as cleaner and tea lady. Offering free cups of tea and a warm smile, they hope to do their bit for tourism. But then the mood changes. Another passenger comes in, seething at the rudeness of the airline staff and bristling with indignation. This is, of course, Jupiter in disguise. Philemon and Baucis do everything they can to put him at his ease and, in return, charmed out of his bad mood, the god gives them the gift of music. And, since it’s an opera and you can’t end with most of the earth being destroyed, Pagnini’s Jupiter allows the young couple to talk him out of his murderous flood, and to restore peace and harmony.
Apart from a couple of choruses, and a rogue aria for one of the tourists (Aoife O’Sullivan), there are really just three singing roles in Philemon and Baucis: the titular couple and Jupiter himself. Philemon was sung by Catherine Backhouse, a mezzo with a gorgeously deep and velvety tone. She took a little while to settle into the role, with both her highest and lowest notes sounding a little insecure at first, but I was much taken by her voice with its spicy, husky colour.
Unfortunately for Backhouse, Gluck didn’t give Philemon any really stunning music, because he reserved his full powers for Baucis, a soprano role originally sung by Lucrezia Aguiari who had a range of three and a half octaves. Her aria You are my shepherd and lover – your name, your mien astound me forms the showpiece of the opera and requires a lot of coloratura, including several leaps to high G. Here Baucis was played by the Canadian soprano Barbara Cole Walton, who was a finalist in the Bampton Young Singers Competition last year, and I was very impressed by her. Yes, her very highest notes were a bit thin, but is that any wonder at such altitude? She handled them with flair and consistency, and her coloratura was supple and effortless. She seemed to be bubbling over with simple joy, and even threw in a playful hint of the Queen of the Night in her final cadenza. Her acting, like that of Backhouse, was very well pitched. Both characters came across as sweet and lovely, possessed by down-to-earth, honest bliss.
Their angry godly visitor was Christopher Turner, whose strong, clear tenor voice was backed up by an excellent feel for comic opportunities. Philemon and Baucis isn’t supposed to be humorous, but he managed to give it a delicious levity. Indeed, I might venture to say that this Jupiter seemed far too genial to be as angry as he has to be.
There was much to like elsewhere: the choreography of the elaborate dance with wheelie cases; the visual jokes; and the role of the chorus in helping us to imagine what was happening – I especially liked the scene during Jupiter’s fury when they all staggered on with umbrellas and plastic ponchos. Like the Don Giovanni that I saw by HGO last year, the Italian text has been translated very loosely into English, with many lines changed to suit the airport setting. It was fresh and funny but, unlike Don Giovanni, departed markedly from the spirit of the original and didn’t always flow entirely comfortably. Overall, I also wondered whether things might have been a little more dramatic if the orchestra’s pace had been just a bit more vigorous. They were professional, crisp and restrained, but I had the niggling feeling that they were a little too well-behaved – considering how much fun the librettist and set-designer had, I wanted the musicians to display some of the same daring: to plunge in and turn these arias into fire.
It was, nevertheless, a very promising start to the evening: entirely not what I’d been expecting, but so much the better for it. Now, imagine me taking a break in the interval, topping up the prosecco and attacking the cocktail sausages, and get a flavour of the evening for yourself by having a look at the only available recording of Philemon and Baucis, performed by Les Talens Lyriques (along with Aristeo, another of the four mini-operas composed for the unfortunate Maria-Amalia’s wedding). We’ll reconvene after the interval.
THE JUDGEMENT OF PARIS: THOMAS ARNE (1742)
When Arne composed The Judgement of Paris, he was working to an old libretto by William Congreve, written in 1701 as the set text for a composition competition. This contest had been the brainchild of a group of aristocrats who wanted to encourage the creation of English-language operas, and had offered a prize for the winning composition. The winner, John Weldon, hasn’t exactly gone down in history, but Congreve’s libretto had a long afterlife and was set by several later composers, with Arne turning his hand to it in 1742. According to the programme, the recitatives and choruses of the original are lost and so the version we saw featured reconstructions by Ian Spink which filled in the gaps.
With Paris, we moved from the arrivals hall to the interior of a plane, continuing the Arne Air theme. Paris is not the bucolic shepherd of legend, but a planespotting geek, loitering at the airport with his book Amazing Aeroplanes and a t-shirt proclaiming Still plays with planes. In a nod to his mythological alter-ego, a fluffy lamb mascot dangles from his backpack. He can’t believe his luck when Mercury – reimagined, rather cunningly, as a dashing pilot with golden wings embroidered on his cap – offers him a private flight, on condition that he undertake one small task. All he has to do is judge a beauty contest between three of Olympus’s touchiest goddesses: Juno, Pallas and Venus, who inevitably take the form of air hostesses. Each of the goddesses seeks to seduce Paris by offering him things that fall within her gift: Juno offers worldly power; Pallas, military glory; and Venus the satisfaction of pleasure and love. Paris, callow youth that he is, plumps for love and, as I’m sure you all know, sets in motion the events which will lead to his abduction of Helen of Sparta and the chaos of the Trojan War.
But the unpleasant after-effects aren’t alluded to here. This is a tale of the triumph of love over all and, even though it wasn’t written for a wedding, it sits very happily alongside the message of Philemon and Baucis. Again there was plenty of irreverence, and I sensed the cast and director were having even more fun with Paris than with Philemon. Paris’s humble reed-flute, with which he’s been entertaining himself before Mercury’s arrival, becomes a pair of headphones; Mercury’s caduceus is transformed into a hand-scanner; and, in the greatest stroke of genius of the night, the beauty contest’s prize – the golden apple – becomes a golden iPod (which, after all, is still an Apple).
The playfulness of the set-up was echoed in the interpretation of the libretto. As the goddesses approach, the dazzled Paris exclaims: ‘Ravishing delight! What mortal can endure the sight?’ Mercury, on the other hand, has no such problems: he calmly puts on a pair of sunglasses. Shortly afterwards, Mercury promises Paris that the goddesses will allow him to ‘every grace discover‘, while frisking him a little too thoroughly for comfort. And Pallas’s assertion that she is a ‘Virgin goddess‘ is underlined by the fact that, of all three stewardesses, she’s the only one who turns up in a blazing red uniform similar to that on Richard Branson’s airline. In my opinion it was much better to subvert the libretto with the action, rather than to change the libretto to suit the action.
Christopher Turner was back as Paris, and I enjoyed his powerful and agile voice even more than in the first half. His ‘Happy I of human race‘ duet with Robert Anthony Gardiner’s Mercury was beautiful, as the two tenor voices wove together – Gardiner’s deeper, Turner’s lighter – in a graceful braid of music. But the thing that really brought this piece to life was Turner’s expressive acting. His geeky Paris was entirely overcome by the charms of the three goddesses and, wavering between disbelief and laddish delight, Turner could reduce the audience to laughter with just a glance. And who could blame him for struggling to choose? Barbara Cole Walton returned as Juno, neat and brisk without a hair out of place, tempting Paris without ever losing her regal self-control. Catherine Backhouse was Pallas, and sounded much more comfortable here: her throaty, textured tones were perfectly suited to the warrior goddess and I had to grin when she performed her aria in favour of martial splendour during a spot of fierce ‘turbulence’ on the plane. But neither of these two divine ladies had a chance while Venus was on the loose.
Aoife O’Sullivan unleashed her inner vamp as a sensual, sultry Venus who was determined to do whatever it took to get that golden iPod firmly in her grasp. From her very first entrance she was exchanging playful glances with Paris, preening, showing off her assets to him and resorting to every trick in the bible of allure. Together, she and Turner were a riot. Eventually, as had to happen, Venus decided to consolidate her hand and dragged the eager Paris into the airline loo, while the other goddesses waited outside in barely disguised rage. Each time the doors to the loo opened for O’Sullivan or Turner to sing, they emerged more dishevelled, more flushed. It was very well done and, of course, Venus got her prize in the end.
Listening to Jeremy Gray’s pre-performance talk, we’d been struck by the fact that he seemed much fonder of Arne’s Paris than Gluck’s Philemon, and that impression was borne out in the performance. My friend observed that they seemed to have come up with the idea for Paris first and then designed Philemon to match. Whether or not that’s true, Paris as a whole felt more successful. The libretto flowed much more easily, despite being in Congreve’s slightly archaic English, and even the music seemed livelier – though I’m not sure whether this is down to the orchestra’s performance, or to Arne outclassing Gluck on this occasion. The singers seemed more at ease, the action flowed better and all in all it felt more polished than Philemon. Perhaps it’s the simple fact that everyone had had time to get into it by this point – we were at the first performance, after all, so perhaps Philemon would have been equally assured if we’d seen that on the second night.
It was a wonderful experience overall. The irreverent but effective staging will be one of its most memorable aspects, and I was glad to have heard such talented young singers. It’s no easy thing, I’m sure, to sing in the open air with no amplification and to project your voice across an audience of (I would guess) around a hundred people. Everyone came across extremely well and I hope to have the chance to hear all the cast on many more occasions. I’ll have to keep a special eye open for Christopher Turner, because it’s rare to have such a combination of a good voice and an instinctive gift for comic acting.
If you’re interested to hear these two rare mini-operas for yourself, then I’m afraid you’ve missed the chance for a self-indulgent picnic in pretty Bampton, but there are two other chances for you to see the show. The company will be performing in The Orangery Theatre at Westonbirt School on 29 August, and then at St John’s Smith Square on 13 September. Both performances will be staged. Do go along if you can – I imagine the cast’s voices will sound even better in the acoustics of St John’s – and then come back and let me know what you think.
I am grateful to Bampton Classical Opera for inviting me to review this performance.