Wednesday 13 September 2017

Mozartian influences: Salieri's La scuola de' gelosi from Bampton Classical Opera

Saleri: La scuola de' gelosi - Matthew Sprange, Rhiannon Llewellyn, Alessandro Fisher, Nathalie Chalkey, Thomas Herford - Bampton Classical Opera (Photo Anthony Hall/Bampton Classical Opera)
Saleri: La scuola de' gelosi - Matthew Sprange, Rhiannon Llewellyn, Alessandro Fisher, Nathalie Chalkey, Thomas Herford - Bampton Classical Opera (Photo Anthony Hall/Bampton Classical Opera)
Salieri La scuola de' gelosi; Matthew Sprange, Kate Howden, Samuel Pantcheff, Nathalie Chalkley Rhiannon Llewellyn, Alessandro Fisher, Thomas Herford, dir: Jeremy Gray, cond: Anthony Kraus; Bampton Classical Opera at St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 12 2017 Star rating: 3.5
Popular in its day, Salieri's comedy might stretch the charm somewhat but it provides important background for Mozart's mature comedies

Saleri: La scuola de' gelosi - Matthew Sprange, Thomas Herford - Bampton Classical Opera (Photo Anthony Hall/Bampton Classical Opera)
Matthew Sprange, Thomas Herford
(Photo Anthony Hall/Bampton Classical Opera)
Having performed Salieri's La grotta di Trofonio in 2015 (see my review), Bampton Classical Opera has returned to the composer this year. Jeremy Gray's production of Salieri's La scuola de' gelosi (The School of Jealousy) debuted in Bampton in July and we caught the company's London visit on 12 September 2017 at St John's Smith Square.  The cast featured Matthew Sprange as Blasio, Kate Howden as Carlotta, Samuel Pantcheff as Lumaca, Nathalie Chalkley as Ernestina, Rhiannon Llewellyn as the Countess, Alessandro Fisher as the Count and Thomas Herford as the Lieutenant. Anthony Kraus conducted Chroma.

Salieri wrote La scuola de' gelosi for the Teatro San Moise in Venice in 1778, the librettist was Caterino Mazzola. Mazzola is perhaps best known as the adapter of Metastasio's libretto for Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito, but Mazzola was also a friend of Lorenzo da Ponte and it was Mazzola who provided Da Ponte with a letter of recommendation to Salieri when Da Ponte pitched up in Vienna. With Da Ponte's help, Salieri revised La scuola de' gelosi for Vienna in 1783, when its performance launched the re-established Italian opera company. For this performance the role of the Countess was sung by Nancy Storace, who would go on to create the role of Susanna in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro.

La scuola de' gelosi seems to have been one of Salieri's most popular operas, with at least fifty productions across Europe during the first 20 years of its existence. In Vienna, Salieri and Da Ponte seem to have planned a follow up, La scuola degli amanti. Da Ponte wrote the libretto and Salieri sketched some music. But Salieri abandoned the project, and Da Ponte passed the libretto to Mozart where it became Cosi fan tutte!

Saleri: La scuola de' gelosi - Matthew Sprange - Bampton Classical Opera (Photo Anthony Hall/Bampton Classical Opera)
Matthew Sprange - (Photo Anthony Hall/Bampton Classical Opera)
The plot concerns three couples, all from different classes. 18th century comic opera used these class distinctions a lot, Goldoni and Galuppi mined this seam in their comic operas for Venice in the 1740s. So we have the aristocratic Count (Alessandro Fisher) and Countess (Rhiannon Llewellyn), the bourgeois Blasio (Matthew Sprange) and his wife Ernestina (Nathalie Chalkley), and the servants Carlotta (Kate Howden) and Lumaca (Samuel Pantcheff). There is also the Lieutenant (Thomas Herford), Blasio's cousin and the Count's friend.

Blasio is inordinately jealous, and the opera opens with him planning to go out on business and locking his wife Ernestina up. The Count is a philanderer with a fondness for the wives of jealous husbands, and he has his eye on Ernestina, to the distress of the Countess who loves her husband. The Lieutenant rather aids and abets things, stirring things up, and after a series of rather farcical situations the opera is resolved with the two couples agreeing to try again.

It is a charming piece, with engaging and interesting music. Salieri's use of ensembles was particularly notable, including two trios and a quintet all of which had an element of imaginative dramatic propulsion to them. And the two act finales were both notable, multi-sectional and very much driven by the action with the first act finale including an ensemble of confusion which was almost Rossinian.

Saleri: La scuola de' gelosi - Nathalie Chalkley, Alessandro Fisher - Bampton Classical Opera (Photo Anthony Hall/Bampton Classical Opera)
Nathalie Chalkley, Alessandro Fisher
(Photo Anthony Hall/Bampton Classical Opera)
Jeremy Gray's production in his own designs with costumes by Vikki Medhurst, set the piece in the Regency period. It was a simple but effective production, with a set which did neat double duty as Blasio's house and the Count's residence, and Cibber's sculptures for Bedlam provided the focus for the scene when the Count and Ernestina visit the asylum.

I had heard good reports of the performances in Bampton where the comedy seemed to really fizz, but the transfer to St John's Smith Square seemed to have taken a bit of the sparkle out of the production. Perhaps having orchestra and conductor Anthony Kraus (who also played the continuo) behind the scenery, forced to communicate with the singers via monitors, made the speeds a little too safe. Whatever the cause, despite admirable performances the long first act (75 minutes) did rather sag. It did not help that in the tricky St John's acoustic, the diction was a bit patchy so that you had to strain to hear the dialogue (sung in Gilly French and Jeremy Gray's translation).

But individual performances were strong, and there were some notable moments particularly in the arias and ensembles. Alessandro Fisher made a nicely bumptious Count, completely charming in his infidelity, whilst Rhiannon Llewellyn was a poignant Countess with her final accompanied recitative and aria one of the opera's strongest moments. Matthew Sprange made the jealous Blasio highly personable, whilst Nathalie Chalkley (who had been ill) was a nervous, put-upon spouse who discovered her own metier when she really does embark on a liaison with the Count (though they only get as far as shopping!). Thomas Herford was all charm as the ubiquitous Lieutenant, whose manipulation of the two couples seemed to arise out of sheer delight at interfering. The two servants, Carlotta (Kate Howden) and Lumaca (Samuel Pantcheff) were no mere cyphers and both Howden and Pantcheff succeeded in giving them real personality.

The orchestra under Anthony Kraus bubbled away nicely in Salieri's lively score, with some lovely wind playing adding colour to the proceedings.

Bampton Classical Opera play a valuable role in giving us the opportunity to hear rarely performed 18th century operas, and their espousal of Salieri shows the rich background from which Mozart's mature operas sprung.

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