Thursday, 15 September 2016

Airborne delights: rare Gluck and Arne comic double bill

The Judgment of Paris - Robert Anthony Gardiner, Christopher Turner - Photo Anthony Hall, Bampton Classical Opera
The Judgement of Paris - Robert Anthony Gardiner, Christopher Turner
Photo Anthony Hall, Bampton Classical Opera
Divine Comedies: Gluck Philemon & Baucis, Arne The Judgment of Paris; Catherine Backhouse, Barbara Cole Walton, Christopher Turner, Robert Anthony Gardiner, Aoife O'Sullivan, dir: Jeremy Gray, Chroma, cond: Paul Wingfield; Bampton Classical Opera at St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Sep 13 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Divine Comedies: a mythological double-bill

Bampton Classical Opera is known for its country-house performances of eighteenth-century rarities in Oxfordshire. This was the London outing (13 September 2016) of this summer’s offering and a rare chance to see a staged performance at St John’s Smith Square.

This evening paired two short works: first was Gluck’s Philemon and Baucis of 1767, set to a "somewhat undramatic" (according to the programme note) text by scholar Giuseppe Maria Pagnini, adapted and translated by Gilly French. For the second half we had Arne’s The Judgement of Paris, written around 1745 and set to a lively text by William Congreve. Performed by Catherine Backhouse, Barbara Cole Walton, Christopher Turner, Robert Anthony Gardiner, and Aoife O'Sullivan in productions directed by Jeremy Gray. Paul Wingfield conducted the instrumental ensemble Chroma.

The Judgment of Paris - Aoife Sullivan, Catherine Backhouse, Barbara Cole Walton - Photo Bampton Classical Opera
The Judgement of Paris Aoife Sullivan, Catherine Backhouse, Barbara Cole Walton
Photo Bampton Classical Opera
We were given a great deal of background in the programme booklet and in Jeremy Gray’s talk. It reminded us just how much energy and thought – and goodwill – goes into any opera performance. We also got a printed copy of the libretto – but in print too small to be read in good lighting, let alone in the dark at St John’s. Nevertheless the performance spoke for itself.

Both works are characterised by mythological settings and earthly dilemmas. Gray set them around a theme of air travel, which conveniently solved the problem of the deus ex machina. Where magical effects can’t be flown from above, we had a multi-faith chapel and a tiny plane loo. The set consisted of a series of flats on the diagonal: a local airport for the Gluck and the inside of a plane for the Arne. The 21-piece band, CHROMA, were behind, almost out of sight, and depended on a large monitor halfway down the audience seating (which I must say felt quite risky, though it worked out mostly OK).

The setting also gave a context for the dances and extended arias. Both works are somewhat slim plot-wise, but in both cases the music provides for rich characterisation: Gluck packs so much of what was to come later in his writing into his short piece, while very little of Arne’s work survives so we have no real way of knowing how it fits into the rest of his output.

Philemon and Baucis are living a simple life in Phrygia, working contentedly at the airport (ARNE AIR!), when in flies the spoilt god Jupiter. Grateful that the lovers were nice to him, he offers all sorts of riches that they turn down in favour of the status quo. Catherine Backhouse’s Philemon had some of the best lines – including rhyming “chocolate biscuit” with “I wouldn’t risk it” and diction generally was excellent (at least from the front seats). Barbara Cole Walton as Baucis had the show-stopping aria “You are my shepherd and lover” complete with spectacular top G’s (G in alt!) that seemed to cost her nothing. Jupiter was a far-flung role with high coloratura and going down into a baritone register. As well as the small chorus, there were some non-singing parts for push & pull, dances with wheeled suitcases as partners, and providing a sweet flower-girl charade in the final wedding scene.

It was very engaging and there were some clever solutions to the problems of staging the work. It felt like an after-dinner entertainment, though I was glad to have seen it inside rather than outside in daylight.

Philemon and Baucis, photo Anthony Hall, Bampton Classical Opera
Philemon and Baucis
photo Anthony Hall, Bampton Classical Opera
The Arne was an even more energetic affair, musically and staging-wise. The airport was turned into the inside of a plane and VIP traveller Paris had to choose between three goddesses, aka cabin crew in talons-out competition for the god’s attentions. Here Aoife O’Sullivan as Venus wove sinuously around Arne’s vocal line and Christopher Turner as Paris had an easier ride than with the Gluck (musically speaking; there was plenty of turbulence in the plane…). Mercury was Robert Anthony Gardiner, upstaged in his aria by Paris trying to get through the security arch without setting off the alarm, taking selfies and generally horsing around. Musically this felt safer: Arne’s muscular English rhythms must have been easier to hold together in these circumstances than Gluck’s distinctive moving blocks of sound.

All in all this was a delightful evening – fun, inventive, with great ensemble singing and playing from a hugely talented and well-matched team who seemed to be having as much fun as we were.

Reviewed by Ruth Hansford

Gluck: Philemon & Baucis
Philemon - Catherine Backhouse
Baucis - Barbara Cole Walton
Jupiter - Christopher Turner
A shepherdess - Aoife O'Sullivan
Tourists - Robert Anthony Gardiner, Robert Gildon

Arne: The Judgment of Paris
Mercury (Hermes), messenger of the gods - Robert Anthony Gardiner
Paris, a shepherd - Christopher Turner
Juno (Saturnia, wife of Jupiter) - Barbara Cole Walton
Pallas (Athena) - Catherine Backhouse
Venus (Cytherea) - Aoife O'Sullivan

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