Wednesday, 18 September 2019

What they did before Figaro: Bampton Classical Opera revives Stephen Storace's comedy written for Vienna's Burgtheater the year before they premiered Mozart's comedy

Stephen Storace Gli sposi malconteni (Bride & Gloom) - Robert Davies, Caroline Kennedy, Jenny Stafford (At Bampton in July 2019) - Bampton Classical Opera (Photo Anthony Hall)
Stephen Storace Gli sposi malconteni (Bride & Gloom) - Robert Davies, Caroline Kennedy, Jenny Stafford, with Arthur Bruce under the cover (At Bampton in July 2019) - Bampton Classical Opera (Photo Anthony Hall)
Stephen Storace Gli sposi malconteni (Bride & Gloom); Robert Davies, Gavan Ring, Jenny Stafford, Aoife O'Sullivan, Arthur Bruce, Adam Tunnicliffe, Caroline Kennedy, dir: Jeremy Gray, Chroma, cond: Anthony Kraus; Bampton Classical Opera at St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 17 September 2019 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Premiered a year before Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro by the same company, Stephen Storace's first opera is an illuminating look at the Viennese opera world of the 1780s

The composer Stephen Storace (1762-1796) was the elder brother of the soprano Nancy Storace who created the role of Susanna in Mozart's opera Le nozze di Figaro. English-born with an Italian father and English mother, the two lived in Vienna in the 1780s where Nancy developed a significant career as a soprano and Stephen as a composer, with Stephen composing two operas for Vienna's Burgtheater, Gli sposi malcontenti (1785) and Gli equivoci (1786), the latter to a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte based on Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors. These are Storace's only scores for Vienna, but he wrote 16 operas in English for London though unfortunately only one of these survives in full score.

Bampton Classical Opera caused something of a stir with its production of Stephen Storace's Gli equivoci in 2000, so it was with great interest that I went along to their performance of Storace's Gli sposi malcontenti (performed under the title of Bride and Gloom) at St John's Smith Square on 17 September 2019. The production, directed and designed by Jeremy Gray, debuted at Bampton this Summer and featured Robert Davies as Rosmondo, Gavan Ring as Casimiro, Jenny Stafford as Eginia, Aoife O'Sullivan as Enrichetta, Arthur Bruce as Artidoro, Adam Tunnicliffe as Valente and Caroline Kennedy as Bettina. Anthony Kraus conducted Chroma.

Gaetano Brunetti's libretto has some remarkable pre-echoes of Le nozze di Figaro (which the same company would premiere in 1786), so clearly Brunetti had been reading Beaumarchais' play; there is a scene with someone hiding behind and on a sofa, and the climactic final scene is full of disguises and misunderstandings in a garden at night! And many of the singers who took part in the premiere of Gli sposi malcontenti, performed roles for Mozart. So that Nancy Storace (Eginia in Storace's opera) sang Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro and most of the rest of the cast for the premiere of Storace's opera pop up on roles in the Vienna performances of Mozart's three Da Ponte operas!

One of the valuable things about Bampton Classical Opera's performances is that it enables us to hear the operas which were current when Mozart was working on his operas with Lorenzo Da Ponte, so that Antonio Salieri's La grotta di Trofonio (which Bampton performed in 1785, see my review) enabled us to hear how much of a debt Mozart owed to Salieri's rich, Gluck-inspired orchestration.

Stephen Storace Gli sposi malconteni (Bride & Gloom) - Robert Davies, Gavan Ring (At Bampton in July 2019) - Bampton Classical Opera (Photo Anthony Hall)
Stephen Storace Gli sposi malconteni (Bride & Gloom) - Robert Davies, Gavan Ring (At Bampton in July 2019)
Bampton Classical Opera (Photo Anthony Hall)
Stephen Storace was rather different, he was trained in Naples (where his father came from) and Storace's orchestra in Gli sposi malcontenti accompanies the arias with relative simplicity and clarity, usually keeping the focus on the voice and making us understand why contemporary audiences could perceive Mozart's comedies as complex. And the arias were frequently in the same form (two part, fast then slow), with much of the music seemingly based on a relatively limited array of motifs. But then Storace was only 23 when the opera was performed and it was his first one. So a promising piece, rather than an undiscovered masterpiece.

Despite the recitative bowling along, it was rather too long; the first act lasted 85 minutes and seemed to need rather too much exposition and it was only in the shorter second act that the drama really seemed to keep going. Jeremy Gray's lively production set the piece in the 1970s (with a striking abstract set based on a wedding cake), but it was noticeable that whenever things flagged he introduced some physical comedy.

Plot was quite entertaining. Casimiro (Gavan Ring) and Eginia (Jenny Stafford) are recently married, she was forced into it by her father and is still a little in love with her previous lover Artidoro (Arthur Bruce). Eginia is excessively tyrannised by her father-in-law, Rosmondo (Robert Davies) and is unhappy. Artidoro has now moved on an in love with Casmiro's sister, Enrichetta (Aoife O'Sullivan), but the middle-aged bachelor Valente (Adam Tunnicliffe) is in love with Enrichetta also and he hatches a plot to blacken Artidoro and Eginia's names so that Enrichetta will have to marry him. All is helped and hindered by the maid, Bettina (Caroline Kennedy).

The work was sung in a lively English translation, originally made by Brian Trowell for the work's UK premiere in 1985. Unfortunately the acoustics of St John's Smith Square are not very sympathetic to words and though the cast worked hard, words were very much at a premium in the arias and ensembles, though the recitatives were much clearer (particularly from the men).

All the cast brought tremendous energy to the performance and a great deal of commitment and engagement, keeping the plot bowling along where they could. Jenny Stafford had some lovely moments as Eginia, a character prone to doubt and worry, whilst Gavan Ring (who recently transitioned from baritone to tenor) made Casimiro an engaging idiot who means well. you sensed that once Eginia got her odious father-in-law out of the way she would rule the roost. As Rosmondo, Robert Davies had great fun with the character's antediluvian attitudes to women!

Aoife O'Sullivan made a charming Enrichetta, more straightforwardly in love with her Artidoro, though O'Sullivan's costumes did make her look rather mature (her first outfit made us think of Margo in the TV series, The Good Live). Arthur Bruce was a very direct Artidoro, charming but very full of himself, whilst Adam Tunnicliffe had fun playing the evil, elderly bachelor. Caroline Kennedy was good value as Bettina the maid, who often got the last word and sported a very 1970s jumper!

Stephen Storace Gli sposi malconteni (Bride & Gloom) - Gavan Ring - Bampton Classical Opera (Photo Anthony Hall)
Stephen Storace Gli sposi malconteni (Bride & Gloom) - Gavan Ring - Bampton Classical Opera (Photo Anthony Hall)
Anthony Kraus and Chroma were placed behind the singers, which meant that Kraus had to communicate only via the monitors. It was a shame that a way could not be found for the conductor to be out front. Chroma turned in a stylish and incisive sound (the orchestration uses double woodwind and horns, plus two trumpets and timpani, and Chroma fielded just eight or nine strings).

So, not a masterpiece then, but a work well worth hearing for the light it sheds on the type of operas around when Mozart was writing and perhaps more importantly, the type of operas that the company at the Burgtheater were used to performing.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Playing of great presence, yet on an intimate scale: chamber versions of Beethoven's symphonic music from I Musicanti at Conway Hall - concert review
  • Coruscating: Leila Josefowicz in Colin Matthews with Simon Rattle & the LSO in an all-British opening concert including Emily Howard & William Walton (★★★½) - concert review
  • Prom 74: Beethoven Night is Back: imaginative programming from Andrew Manze and NDR Radiophilharmonie, Hanover (★★★) - concert review
  • An interesting and illuminating mix: I chat to Ensemble Hesperi about combining Scottish Baroque music with Highland dance - interview
  • A listening challenge: Philippe Manoury's large-scale musical fresco for piano duo and electronics in a stunning performance (★★) - Cd review
  • A terrific place to start an exploration of Jonathan Dove's non-operatic output: Lawrence Zazzo, BBC Philharmonic, Timothy Redmond on Orchid Classics  (★★★) - CD review
  • A considerable company achievement: David Blake's Scoring a Century from British Youth Opera - Opera review
  • Prom 63: A 'nice mountain to climb', Yuja Wang, Dresden Staatskapelle, Myung-Whun Chung at the BBC Proms  (★★★) - concert review
  • To avoid being the sort of group which comes in, does a concert & goes away again: I chat to violinist David Le Page, artistic director of the Orchestra of the Swan - interview
  • The Late Romantic Violin: music by Vladigerov, Poulenc & Seaborne (★★★) - CD review
  • Prom 61: Ultimately, rather uninvolved - the Vienna Philharmonic in Dvořák and Korngold (★★★) - concert review
  • All was stylish & expressive, leaving us to enjoy the music & the comedy in such an engaging way that the time sped by: British Youth Opera in Rossini's La Cenerentola  - opera review
  • Home

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