Saturday 23 July 2016

Divine Comedies: I chat to the artistic directors of Bampton Classical Opera about their new double bill

Matthew Stiff as Trofonio with his 'cave' - Trofonio's Cave - Bampton Classical Opera
Matthew Stiff as Trofonio with his 'cave'
Trofonio's Cave - Bampton Classical Opera
Bampton Classical Opera has gained a reputation for lively and engaging productions of rare 18th century repertoire performed in the delightful confines of the Deanery Garden in Brampton. Their production last year gave us the chance to become acquainted with Salieri's delightful comedy Trofonio's Cave (see my review). I recently caught up with artistic directors Gilly French and Jeremy Gray to talk about the company's Divine Comedies, a double bill of Gluck's Philemon and Baucis (the UK premiere) and Arne's The Judgement of Paris which opens this weekend.

They first performed Thomas Arne's The Judgement of Paris for the Arne centenary in 2010, which they gave in a semi-staged production. Both fell in love with what they describe as a charming, irreverent piece with fantastic music. The company performs the operas in English, usually in Gilly and Jeremy's own translations, so having Congreve's witty English libretto was a delight. (The libretto was originally written for the famous competition in 1700/1701 when composers John Weldon, John Eccles, Daniel Purcell and Gottfried Finger all set the piece.)

Both Jeremy and Gilly felt they wanted follow Salieri's Trofonio's cave last year with another comedy this year. Having decided to return to The Judgement of Paris and give the work a full production, the choice was on the companion piece. Their performance of Gluck's Philemon and Baucis will be the UK premiere. Gluck's opera was written in 1769 for a triple bill of operas Le feste d'Apollo written for the marriage of the Duke of Parma to an Austrian princess; the triple bill also included a shortened version of Gluck's Orfeo. Arne's opera is not recorded, but Gluck's is and when Gilly and Jeremy listened to it they felt it really worth doing. They found it beautiful music to work on, with great variety and colour.

The Deanery Garden, Bampton
The Deanery Garden, Bampton
venue for Bampton Classical Opera performances
As a small company, Bampton has to ensure that double bills have matched pieces to reduce the budget. Both the Arne and the Gluck pieces are mythological, and Jeremy (who is directing both works) felt that the two operas could be made to work together especially as the character of Jupiter links both. Where Arne's work is a clever and witty telling of the story, by contrast nothing very much happens in Gluck's opera yet all concerned agree that it is very funny.

Remarkably, Bampton Classical Opera is one of the few companies exploring this repertoire of 18th century opera. Since the company was founded in 1993, they have performed a remarkable list of works with many UK premieres. I was curious how this concentration on 18th century repertoire came about.

During their second year they performed Mozart's L'oca del Cairo, not from a desire to specialise in 18th century opera but because they had heard a recording of it and found it a fun piece. But then they attended a concert by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment where music by 18th century operatic composers such as Jomelli was performed. Both realised that they had found a niche and decided there and then to concentrate on 18th century opera.

One of the biggest difficulties in this repertoire is getting hold of the music, and they admit that they have learned as they went along.
For Mozart's L'oca del Cairo the recording company helped out, and works like Ganzaniga's Don Giovanni and operas by Paisiello are published. The unpublished works are harder to acquire, but they have found people who create sets of parts for them once a source manuscript has been found (sometimes an early edition). For a small company, budget is an issue here; an essential is to have presentable music reasonably priced, and Gilly points out that for published music, music hire is not cheap.

Jeremy Gray and Gilly French
Jeremy Gray and Gilly French
Though Gluck's Philemon et Baucis has been recorded by Les Talens Lyriques, but for some reason their material could not be located and Bampton was able to use a copy of a manuscript in the Royal College of Music. Similarly last year's Salieri opera, though it has been recorded, had parts created from a copy of the first edition which was discovered on the internet.

This year the operas are being performed at the Deanery Garden in Bampton, in Westonbirt School and at St John's Smith Square. They started performing originally just in Bampton, simply because Jeremy and Gilly live there. The Deanery is a lovely house next to the church and Gilly and Jeremy knew people who had put on concerts there. When they learned that a local arts organisation needed a musical event, they put on their first opera Handel's Acis and Galatea.  At the Deanery Garden, they perform in a walled garden against a yew hedge, and the acoustics are fine. If the weather does not cooperate, then they can move next door into the church.

They started performing at Westonbirt School because a friend became headmistress. They perform there at the end of August, when it can become cold and they have changed from performing outdoors to in the school theatre. They sometimes visit other festivals and have performed at Buxton, at Bury Court Opera and at the Northern Aldborough Festival, though the fact that they insist on performing with orchestra and perform relatively unknown pieces can sometimes limit the saleability of their productions to other festivals. But both Gilly and Jeremy think that it is important to hear the orchestral textures of the music.

Bampton Classical Opera's Divine Comedies in rehearsal
Bampton Classical Opera's
Divine Comedies in rehearsal
At Bampton they have a loyal audience who come every year, and some support the festival financially because of the unusual repertoire. Gilly and Jeremy feel the audience comes because they know they will get a remarkably high standard of performance at a relatively affordable price. Also Gilly describes Bampton as a wonderful place to come to, like a gentle party.

They mainly do comic operas, though a serious piece is on the short-list for next year. For a work to be chosen, the quality of the music must be good but they must feel that something can be done with it dramatically too. Length is a factor because they perform outside, so that two hours length is ideal whereas three hours is too much. Jeremy adds that comic operas have predominated in their repertoire not just because of length, but because comic pieces in the 18th century tended to have more ensembles making for a livelier work.

They have a long list of works which they want to do, and not all will make it into production. Some have too many characters, thus making them too expensive to put on. One work that both return to in our conversation is Stephen Storace's Comedy of Errors (Gli Equivoci), which they performed in 2000 (see the review in The Independent) and which is something they would love to perform again. This is unlikely because not only does it have a large cast and huge orchestra, but it requires a pair of tenors and a pair of baritones both of which need be made to appear to be twins. Jeremy comments that it is the sort of work that English National Opera ought to be doing. A work which stands more chance of being chosen for performance is another Stephen Storace, Gli sposi malcontenti which, with a cast of only eight singing, is on a more suitable scale.

I was interested in what they thought the most successful of Bampton's output had been so far. Salieri's Trofonio's Cave (performed in 2015) is one which is immediately selected. But then Gilly adds that whatever they are working on at the time is the most successful, but the company has built and developed so when they look back time adds perspective. Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice which they performed a long time ago was successful at the time, but they admit that the production would probably seem amateurish to them now. Salieri's Falstaff which they performed in 2003 is another work which stands out,  and both find Paisiello's Barber of Seville to be tremendous.

Bampton Classical Opera's Divine Comedies in rehearsal
Bampton Classical Opera's
Divine Comedies in rehearsal
Generally they do not return to works, and only a couple of works they have done twice (the Arne from this year and Gazzaniga's Don Giovanni). One reason for not repeating works is that if they do so, audience members are apt to say 'I've seen that' despite the rarity of the work and the unlikely chance of seeing it often.

I ask them about their favourites, and  both say that the opera they have just done is their current favourite, but then Gilly suggests works by Arne, Storace and Linley, whereas Jeremy says it would be anything by Gluck.

Bampton Classical Opera's production of Gluck's Philemon and Baucis and Arne's The Judgement of Paris was performed at the Deanery Garden, Bampton in Oxfordshire on 22 and 23 July 2016.
The production is repeated at the Orangery Theatre, Westonbirt School, near Tetbury, Gloucestershire, GL8 8QG on Monday 29 August, and at St John's Smith Square on Tuesday 13 September. The productions are directed by Jeremy Gray, with conductor Paul Wingfield and a cast including Barbara Cole Walton, Aoife O'Sullivan, Catherine Backhouse, Christopher Turner, Robert Anthony Gardiner and Robert Gildon.

Further ahead the company is performing at St John's Smith Square on 15 November 2016 as part of the Shakespeare 400 celebrations when they Gilly French will conduct the Bampton Classical Players and soloists Rosalind Coad, Caroline Kennedy, Thomas Herford and James Harrison in excerpts from Georg Benda's opera Romeo and Juliet (which the company performed in 2007) and Thomas Linley the Younger's Ode on the Fairies, Aerial Beings and Witches of Shakespeare .

Full details from the Bampton Classical Opera website.

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