Friday 7 August 2015

More than frothy fun - Gluck's Il Parnaso confuso at Wilton's Music Hall

Top (from left to right): singers Cenk Karaferya, Louisa Petais, Alison Manifold, and Daire Halpin Bottom: Ian Peter Bugeja conducting Les Bougies Baroques from the harpsichord - photo credit Matthew Ferguson
Top (from left to right):
singers Cenk Karaferya, Louisa Petais, Alison Manifold, & Daire Halpin
Ian Peter Bugeja conducting Les Bougies Baroques from the harpsichord
photo credit Matthew Ferguson
Gluck Il Parnasso confuso; Daire Halpin, Lousa Petais, Alison Manifold, Cenk Karaferya, dir: Anna Pool, cond: Ian Peter Bugeja; Les Bougies Baroques at Wilton's Music Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 06 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Lively and engaging staging of one of Gluck's rarely performed, but certainly not lesser, one-act operas

Christoph Willibald Gluck is best known for his handful of reform operas, but in a long career he wrote much else that was of interest. His opera (in fact a one-act azione teatrale) Il Parnaso confuso  (Parnassus in confusion) was written with a libretto by Metastasio in 1765 for the wedding celebrations of Emperor Joseph II to Maria Josepha of Bavaria in Vienna. The four solo parts, Apollo and three of the muses, Melpomene, Euterpe and Erato, were played by the Emperor's sisters, the archduchesses then aged 12 to 21, and the piece was directed from the harpsichord by the Emperor's brother. The work is far more complex and contains far more of interest than the incidental nature of its genesis might suggest and clearly the young archduchesses were very talented. But also, being a wedding piece, Gluck and Metastasio were in relaxed mood and the piece has a frothy gaiety (and in-jokes) which we don't really expect.

Surprisingly the work received its first UK period instrument performance at Wilton's Music Hall on Thursday 6 August 2015 when Les Bougies Baroques, artistic director Ian Peter Bugeja, presented a one off performance. Directed by Anna Pool, with designs by Maciej Krajewski, the cast featured Daire Halpin as Apollo, Louisa Petais as Melpomene, Alison Manifold as Euterpe and Cenk Karaferya as Erato, with Ian Peter Bugeja directing an instrumental ensemble from the harpsichord.

Les Bougies Baroques is an instrumental/vocal period performance ensemble founded and directed by the young Maltese keyboard player Ian Peter Bugeja. Last year, owing to problems with our car, I managed to miss the group's performance of Mozart at Clandon Hall so this year was determined that other transport difficulties (a tube strike) would not prevent me from seeing their production of Il Parnaso confuso. The performance was a one-off, but clearly much care had been lavished on it and the group is hoping to raise interest in the work and perhaps even record it. Afterwards Ian Peter informed me that there are two or three further Gluck azione teatrale which he has his eye on, all deserving of revival.

The work on this opera started at the bottom, as the score and parts were all produced in a new edition for the group based on the original manuscript. And Anna Pool's staging, whilst making great use of found objects, was clearly the result of a lot of thought how to bring the spirit of the original to the 21st century and an audience who would respond neither to the in-jokes in the libretto, nor the mythological background of the plot. Who knows nowadays that Melpomene is the muse of tragedy, Euterpe the muse of music and Erato the muse of lyric and erotic poetry!

So the setting was a shop, Parnasso Bridal Couture with the three proprietors Melpomene (Louisa Petais), Euterpe (Alison Manifold) and Erato (Cenk Karaferya) put into confusion with the appearance of Daire Halpin's wedding planner Apollo and the request for wedding plans soon. This cues a sequence of panic and bickering, but a mood of cooperation is interrupted by Apollo to tell them that the wedding has already taken place. Annoyance gives way to delight when they learn that they are invited to grace the celebrations

With an opera lasting 75 minutes, for four soprano voices, there is a danger of sameness and confusion. Ian Peter Bugeja had mitigated against this by casting four very contrasting singers so that each had a distinct vocal style, and Anna Pool had created some very distinct characterisations with very different costuming. Lousa Petais was the highly emotional Melpomene, looking dramatic in black, and as the lead role as she gets two arias and duet, and Petais has a big dramatic voice with a strong lower register. Alison Manifold, looking striking in a Wicked Lady style wig and hat (only the beauty spot was missing) was the flirty sexy Euterpe sung with a lovely rich, quite romantic style voice and counter-tenor Cenk Karaferya was the ditsy, food-obsessed Erato looking slightly alarming in a white candy-floss wig and lampshade shape skirt, singing with robust lyrical tones. Having Cenk Karaferya in drag was, I think, the only mis-step as it rather smacked of send-up despite Karferya's fine efforts (I hardly recognised him when I saw him in mufti in the bar afterwards) and I can see no reason why Euterpe should not have been a man. The fourth character was Daire Halpin's brisk, Apollo sung with a lovely bright voice, warmed with vibrato and with a fine strong sense of line.

The action was lively with much comic action to keep things moving during the long da capo arias. Anna Pool even had fun with the da capo form as Alison Manifold's Euterpe in her aria gestured in dismay at Ian Peter Bugeja when she realised she had to sing the A section again. But none of the action sent the form up, it was all plot based and rather delightful. Like Longborough's recent production of Handel's Serse at the Royal College of Music, I found the production style a little too busy for my taste and would have favoured a few moments when we could simply have savoured the fine performance and let the music speak for itself. There was a sense that a longer rehearsal time might have brought a greater level of sophistication, but all the singers were technically very adept and brought great energy and commitment to the performance, as well as a sense of fun. It was a delightful, frothy and engaging 75 minutes.

Louisa Petais made a dramatic Melpomene, singing with gusto and a lovely sense of comedy within the music, but never shirking the elaborate decorations and producing some impressive moments. Her second aria, with lovely horn contributions, had some particular striking musical moments. Alison Manifold's Euterpe in her aria had the accompaniment of a really fine solo oboe from Jan Hutek, and she complemented with the rich dark tones of her voice plus a really sexy and funny performance. Cenk Karaferya sang Erato's aria beautifully, it was the simplest and most lyrical of the three (the archduchess playing the part was only 12 after all), and Karaferya too showed a great sense of comedy. Daire Halpin brought cool brilliance to the role of Apollo. All the cast showed how to combine comedy with music, and had a nice sense of comic timing. They made the recitative zip along dramatically too. Diction was good, and if your Italian was good enough to follow Metastasio's text you could understand. For those of us not able to do so, there were librettos but frankly the performance was so communicative that you did not need it.

From the beginning of the opening sinfonia it was clear that Gluck had lavished a great deal of attention on the orchestral parts. He made his small orchestra work hard. Here we had just 16 players (leader Edmund Taylor) with two horns, two oboes and a bassoon, plus strings and harpsichord. Much of the writing was imaginative, not just the solo moments in the arias, with some remarkably complex detailing in the inner string parts. The orchestra attacked this with vigour and robust gusto. There were a few places where energy seemed to make up for lack of sophistication in the strings, probably due to short rehearsal time, but overall there was a great feeling of energy and sense of engagement.

Wilton's Music Hall is a lovely venue for such endeavours, just the right size and with a finely sympathetic acoustic. I certainly hope that Les Bougies Baroques are able to delight us with the work again soon.

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