(Bampton Classical Opera at St John’s Smith Square, 18 May 2021)
Bravo, Bampton Classical Opera: it takes a certain panache to make your post-Covid comeback with an opera called (in Italian) La corona! Commissioned for the Viennese court in 1765, this this rare piece by Gluck is a sparkling treat for the ears; despite being only an hour long in this concert version, it’s packed with musical variety, ranging from limpid pastoral to the martial grandeur of the chase. Based on the myth of Atalanta and Meleager, The Crown uses the Calydonian boar hunt as the backdrop for a delightful celebration of adolescent ambition and female courage. Performed here by an excellent cast, backed by the chamber orchestra CHROMA, it was the perfect way to ease back into Baroque after a year-long drought. I should say that this review is based on the excellent video broadcast of the production, as unfortunately I wasn’t quick enough off the mark to secure one of the limited seats – but the film is a treat in itself; it’s still available and comes highly recommended. I’ll link to it at the end of the post. So, gather up your arrows, steel your nerves, and come with me into the verdant forests of Calydon…
In its original form, the opera was a series of arias interwoven with extensive recitatives. Bampton wisely dropped the recitatives, and replaced them with a witty summary in English, performed with great aplomb by the actress Rosa French (presumably it’s not too great an intuitive leap to assume she’s related to Bampton’s artistic director Gilly French?). This not only focused attention on the arias, which suited this stripped-back production, but also allowed the story to stand out crisp and clear, offering background context for any audience members whose Greek mythology wasn’t up to scratch. French’s narration was a gem: respectful of the source, but full of twinkles of humour; and she performed the whole thing without any notes. Narrators can work brilliantly in concert contexts – I still remember the joy of Lindsey Duncan’s narration to the Rival Queens concert at the 2019 London Handel Festival – and The Crown felt beautifully balanced between story (spoken text) and elaboration (arias).
Throughout the overture, hunting horns are interwoven with lighter pastoral flutters from the woodwind section, foreshadowing the opera’s tension between masculine and feminine, active and passive, idleness and participation. Needless to say, as someone who always gets excited when horns show up in an aria, I was in my element here. As the curtain rises (metaphorically speaking), we meet our three young heroines, who are waiting impatiently at the Temple of Diana in Calydon. Their menfolk are off heroically hunting down the fearsome Boar (whose ravages have forced the locals to shut themselves up in their houses: lockdown, Greek-style!), but they are expected to keep themselves safely out of the way. Excited by the proximity of the hunt, the girls chafe at being left out, but Atalanta (Samantha Louis-Jean) – the eldest, and princess of Argos – tries to calm her companions down, with the aria Vacilla il mio coraggio (‘My courage falters’). Right from the word go, I noticed that Gluck was really letting his young singers show off here (more on that later). There are some difficult portions of coloratura, especially in the cadenzas, but Louis-Jean made it seem effortless, her clear, softly textured voice floating over the challenging passages.
Just in case the girls aren’t convinced, the prince Meleagro (Harriet Eyley) shows up with an aria, Sol voi rese il ciel cortese (‘The gracious heavens chose you alone’). He reminds the girls that they are ‘the worthy object of our vows, the lovely encouragement for our great ventures and the sweet prize for virtue’: essentially, reading between the lines, they are trophies waiting for the triumphant heroes to return. Meleagro might be crushing the girls’ nascent feminism, and reinforcing the patriarchy, but he doesn’t half do it prettily. This aria is even more challenging than the last one, but Eyley tackled the complex, rippling notes and some demanding high notes with nonchalant ease. Little did I know then that Meleagro had a real belter coming up later on. But, for now, he heads off and the girls digest his advice. They aren’t convinced. Feisty young Asteria (Lucy Anderson), his little sister, sings Anch’io mi sento in petto (‘I also feel the sparks of bravery in my breast’), demanding to know why only the men are allowed to go off to become heroes, when she has just as much courage to spare as they. I thoroughly enjoyed this aria, as you can imagine, partly due to its powerful message, but mainly (I admit) due to the horns, which echoed Asteria’s petulant words. Anderson sang with bravura, and I thought her presentation here was particularly good, not just conveying the spirit of the words, but engaging with the audience and really bringing this determined little princess to life.
Atalanta does her best to soothe Asteria. She might be small now, but when she grows up she might well have the chance to become a hero. For me, the aria Quel chiaro rio che a pena (‘That clear stream that barely winds its way’) was one of two favourites, because I loved the imagery of youth’s potential, barely held in check: that stream is narrow here, Atalanta says, but it will ‘one day confront the sea as a mighty river’. Likewise, ‘That sweet sapling that now cannot withstand the April breezes will, one day, resist tempestuous winds and the bleak seasons.’ Each of the two verses focuses on an image of embryonic power, contrasting its present weakness with its future might, and the wonderful thing is that Gluck’s music echoes this. When it starts, the aria sounds like a gentle pastoral piece (I must note the delicious little flutter of notes on the word ‘serpeggia‘, to suggest its serpent-like quality), but halfway through each verse the music surges up, suggesting the swelling of the stream or the strengthening of the tree. It’s a wonderful coupling between poetry and music, and makes for a lovely aria – ‘They will see your strength,’ Atalanta promises, ‘but just give it a few years.’ The poetry, I should point out, was written by my beloved Metastasio, who writes better women by far than some later librettists (who seem to run out of characterisation beyond ‘dies beautifully’): I usually find his female roles far more interesting than their male counterparts.
Unfortunately, Atalanta’s wisdom is in vain. Asteria goes haring off in the direction of the hunt, with Atalanta in hot pursuit and the third member of their party – Atalanta’s sister Climene – is left alone, wondering what to do. Climene (Lisa Howarth) is the sensible one, but even she has been inspired by her friends’ enthusiasm. Deciding to go to their aid, she sings Benchè inesperto all’armi (‘Although inexperienced with weapons’), a gentle aria which echoes Climene’s character and celebrates friendship as the spur to great deeds. Alongside the more colourful arias of her companions, Climene’s piece could potentially have been overshadowed, but fortunately Howarth (presumably married to Robert Howarth?) is an immensely graceful singer, evoking Climene’s shy determination and drawing out the playfulness of her cadenzas. Fortunately, Climene is saved: Atalanta and the others soon reappear, with news that – between them – Atalanta and Meleagro have slain the vicious boar. The besotted Meleagro sings a fervent aria in her honour, Fe’ germogliare il fato (‘May the Fates allow this triumphal laurel’), urging her to accept the victor’s crown. This aria was easily the highlight of the evening for me: a showpiece of agility, punctuated by French horns and underlaid by a beautiful oboe obbligato. Eyley was brilliant, turning out some long, swelling notes, and adding plenty of supple ornamentation in the da capo, before rounding everything off with a ringing high note. Over the past year, I’ve really missed arias like this, which leave me with a daft grin on my face. Let there always be more horns and more mad coloratura, please.
There is then – unsurprisingly, given that this is Metastasio – a duet in which Atalanta and Meleagro squabble over who should have the crown, each arguing that the other is more worthy. (It’s best to think of Metastasio’s operas as romantic comedies, in which the couple who are constantly arguing always turn out to be the perfect match.) Eyley’s and Louis-Jean’s voices interwove to beautiful effect here, until the back-and-forth sparring came to an uneasy compromise. But who ends up with the crown? This is where Metastasio does something really unusual – at least, I haven’t seen it before. Climene breaks the fourth wall and announces that she is actually not Climene at all but Maria-Josepha of Austria (for whom the role was written). She announces that the crown will be given to the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I, her father, for whose name day the opera was originally written in 1765. Everyone agrees, and things are rounded off with a chorus professing everyone’s enormous respect and reverence for Francis.
The opera was commissioned in spring 1765 by Empress Maria Teresa, in the wake of the success of Il parnaso confuso the previous January – another court opera written by Metastasio and Gluck, and performed by the royal family. The Crown would have made a delightful name-day present, wouldn’t it? Unfortunately, however, it was never performed. Francis tragically died in August 1765, just a few months before the planned premiere of the opera, and the piece was shelved. It was performed for the first time in 1966 and has been put on a mere handful of times: this is only the second time in the UK, so it really can be classed as a hidden gem. As a historian, though, I couldn’t help thinking a bit more about the original casting. Metastasio and Gluck were both courtiers: they knew the four Archduchesses, all daughters of Maria Teresa and Francis (and elder sisters of Marie-Antoinette), who took the original roles. Did they shape the parts to their players? One can assume that Maria-Elisabeth, the eldest, who played Meleagro, had a dazzling talent, given the complexity of her role; Maria Amalia, who played Atalanta, must have been equally gifted. Was Maria Josepha, the original Climene, known for being gentle and sensible? Was Maria Carolina (the youngest, a mere twelve years old when the opera was written) notably feisty and brave, like Asteria? It’s a tantalising game – but one thing is for sure. If the music is remotely representative of the young Archduchesses’ talents, they must have been extraordinarily accomplished young women.
I can’t tell you how delighted I am that London is slowly coming back to life after a year that has been spent suspended in amber. Even though I was only watching this on film, there was something so special about seeing something which had been performed live just a few days earlier. I’m going to see my first live opera on 4 June and I can’t wait! If you would like to watch The Crown too, there is pay-per-view access via Bampton’s website. When you pay for access, you’ll receive the programme notes and libretto, so you’ll be all set to enjoy this little jewel of an opera – and, moreover, you’ll help support a wonderful opera company. Keep your eyes peeled, because Bampton have more Gluck coming up this summer: Paride ed Elena – whose cast includes Lucy Anderson and Lisa Howarth.
A reminder of the four young women for whom the opera was originally written. These four delightful chalk drawings, by the inimitable Liotard, were drawn along with portraits of Maria Teresa’s other children in 1762 – three years before the opera was commissioned. They are all from the collection of the Musée d’art et d’histoire in Geneva. Clockwise from top left: Maria Elisabeth (Meleagro); Maria Josepha (Climene); Maria Carolina (Asteria); and Maria Amalia (Atalanta). Here, too, in the middle of the top row, is their father Francis I, the intended dedicatee, shown in a very understated portrait of 1745 by Martin van Meytens from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.