Friday 18 September 2015

Dr Who meets Jane Austen with pre-echoes of Mozart - Salieri's La grotta di Trofonio

Trofonio's Cave - Bampton Classical Opera - Matthew Stiff
Matthew Stiff as Trofonio
with his 'cave'
Salieri La grotta di Trofonio (Trofonio's Cave); James Harrrison, Aoife O'Sullivan, Catherine Backhouse, Marieke Bernard-Berkel, Christopher Turner, Nicholas Merryweather, Matthew Stiff, Chroma, dir: Jeremy Gray, cond: Paul Wingfield; Bampton Classical Opera at St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 15 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Engaging revival of Salieri's comedy, full of pre-echoes of Mozart

Bampton Classical Opera, artistic director Gilly French and Jeremy Gray, has something of a reputation for shedding light on forgotten corners of 18th century operatic repertoire, and their latest production is certainly quite a find. The first UK production in modern times of Salieri's La grotta di Trofonio (Trofonio's Cave) which premiered in Vienna in 1785. Jeremy Gray's production, conducted by Paul Wingfield, debuted at Bampton in July, and came to St John's Smith Square for one performance on 15 September 2015. The cast included James Harrison, Aoife O'Sullivan, Christopher Turner, Nicholas Merryweather and Matthew Stiff. Anna Starushkevych was also supposed to be performing but she was marooned in the Ukraine having trouble renewing her UK visa, so Catherine Backhouse sang whilst Marieke Bernard-Berkel acted. The ensemble Chroma provided the orchestral accompaniment.

Trofonio's Cave - Bampton Classical Opera - Nicholas Merryeather, Aoife O'Sullivan
Nicholas Merryweather & Aoife O'Sullivan
If we think of Salieri's music at all (and it is difficult to get away from his extra-musical reputation) it is probably as a teacher (Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt were amongst his pupils), or as the writer of large scale opera seria. Trofonio's Cave is rather different, and it helps to shed some illuminating background to Mozart's trilogy of operas with Lorenzo da Ponte (Le nozze di Figaro premiered in 1786 and a number of the cast in Trofonio would go on to perform in Mozart's operas).

Saleri had collaborated with Lorenzo da Ponte in 1784 (on Il ricco d'un giorno in 1784) but they had fallen out. Trofonio's Cave with a libretto by Giambattista Casti has some remarkable pre-echoes of Cosi fan tutte. Its plot also uses two couples who are mixed up, though Trofonio's Cave remained firmly in the realm of farce; first the men are transformed to the consternation of the women, then after the men return to normal, the women go through the same process. The result is amusing without ever moving into the emotional territory occupied by Cosi fan tutte (a libretto which Salieri seems to have toyed with setting in the 1780's). But it is not just the plot links, Salieri's music provides remarkable pre-echoes of Mozart thus showing us, like Mozart's indebtedness to Michael Haydn in the Requiem, that Mozart's style came out of somewhere. Salieri's long, structural, multi-sectional finales (an operatic form invented by Galuppi) and the structure and style of some of the arias also point us to Mozart, as does the way Salieri handles the wind and the rich sound of the orchestra.

But the opera has neither the emotional impact nor the tunes of Mozart's. Still, there was a great deal to enjoy in the stylishly lively and zipping production (the recitatives were evidently somewhat trimmed). Jeremy Gray's production (in his own designs with costumes by Vikki Medhurst) was themed, rather effectively, on the episode of Dr Who where he meets Jane Austen! The main action took place with with 18th century characters in an Austen-esque library, but Trofonio's cave was the Tardis and Trofonio was the good doctor himself. It work enormously well; for the original audience Trofonio (a figure from myth) would still have had cultural resonance, so this was a good replacement.

Trofonio's Cave - Bampton Classical Opera - Christopher Turner
Christopher Turner
The young cast was lively, engaging and not a little stylish. They clearly had great fun with the production, whilst contributing some highly engaging performances. The opera encompassed not just solos but a series of imaginative duets and ensembles in which the young singers blended and combined beautifully.  The opera was sung in Jeremy Gray's lively, and sometimes witty, translation and the singers communicative diction made no other help necessary.

Aoife O'Sullivan made a neatly pert Dori (the fun loving daughter). Christopher Turner as he philosophical suitor had great fun with his hippy alter-ego. Nicholas Merryweather, the lively suitor, combined a gift for comedy with a nice turn as the more serious alter-ego. The girls father, Aristone, a slightly prosy if well-meaning character, was played by James Harrison. Catherine Backhouse sang the role of the serious daughter Ofelia, giving a performance which belied the last minute nature of the arrangements, and Marieke Bernard-Berkel (one of the stage managers) proved and expressive mime so that there were many moments when we did not notice the extra artifice involved.

Matthew Stiff had a wonderful time in the relatively small but important role of Trofonio. This character gets the rather notable magic music, which first occurs in the overture, and Trofonio's first aria even included an off-stage chorus of spirits. The music was full of interest and drama, with hints of an infernal Don soon to come.

Paul Wingfield conducted Chroma, which was placed behind the scenes thus causing one or two balance problems. But overall the players did great service to Salieri's orchestral writing, particularly the wind players.

Not every 18th century opera is a hidden gem, but Trofonio's Cave is definitely worth revising and our thanks to Bampton Classical Opera for making it possible, and doing so in a production which did the work justice in such an engaging manner. It makes me wonder what Salieri's other operas are like, particularly the one with a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte.

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