Inevitably tarred with trumped up charges of murdering a precocious and scatologically inclined former child wonder, history, or more particularly, literature has not been kind to Antonio Salieri, so a rare opportunity to hear one of his operas is a pleasant treat in the UK. If the continent gets a much better deal with performances of Les Danaïdes on several occasions and La grotta di Trofonio itself having been performed in Lausanne back in 2005, Bampton Classical Opera make a welcome return to St John’s Smith Square in this semi-staged performance of Salieri’s comedy. The company are no strangers to Salieri themselves, having put on Falstaff in 2003.
The original libretto by Giovanni Casti was written prior to Da Ponte’s Così fan tutte but La grotta di Trofonio similarly has at its heart a pair of lovers whose relationship is challenged by an external party. Indeed, some of the original performers in Trofonio would go on to sing in Figaro and Così. The plot is admittedly a little as if The Tempest meets Così for a few martinis and a faceful of illicit substances with much merriment ensuing. The cave in question has the power to reverse a person’s personality, making them the complete opposite of their usual self. Couples get mixed up but all ends happily. It’s silly but enjoyable.
With such a basic story, it was good to see simple sets being used by director Jeremy Gray, with a library forming the domestic world of the lovers. This was to change upon the entry of Trofonio, with the cave of the title being created by the appearance of Dr Who’s Tardis, Trofonio himself entering dressed very much like the Tom Baker iteration. This idea was largely effective and resulted in an agreeably and generally uncluttered production. Despite this, there were a few hiccups with stagehands still moving across the stage as Trofonio arrived in Act 1 scene 2. The setting was largely Victorian with a few incongruous moments. It felt deeply anachronistic to have the more reserved couple turn into a stoned hippy and an extra from Austin Powers after passing through the doors of the Tardis. One would have relished seeing the singers rise to the challenge of portraying a couple living on the wild side of the Victorian age rather than a fairly easy option of the swinging 1960s.
Gray was also partially responsible, sharing duties with Gilly French, for the production’s English translation with many a rhyming couplet. The translation made the most of the jokes and good-natured humour with such conversations as:
“Are you familiar with the works of Plato?”
“Oh, come off it, you great potato.”
Musically there was much to enjoy: from the singers, the orchestra and indeed Salieri himself. The overture is a jolly little romp once passed the C minor introduction, music that would later appear to introduce Trofonio and his cave of wonders. The grim and gloomy world of mischievous magic was swept aside by a joyous allegro with bubbling wind figures and bright trumpet fanfares, all played with gusto by the Orchestra of Bampton Classical Opera under the baton of conductor Paul Wingfield. Wingfield led an enthusiastic performance of the riotously spirited music, such as the close of Artemidoro’s arietta “Hurrah for the joy that enraptures my heart”. The playing was not without a few rough patches, particularly the opening of Ofelia’s first aria where the slightly disjointed ensemble work thankfully settled into sweet harmony. If there was a more serious problem it was that the acoustic of the venue mixed with the orchestra’s brio often led to singers being overwhelmed and drowned out, especially during more bombastic moments. The finales briskly moved along, and there was some wonderful tone painting in a depiction of buzzing flies by the violins during the Act 2 finale. The cor anglais playing amusing depicted the suddenly intellectualism of the generally ditzy Plistene, in a sound world shared with Haydn’s Symphony 22.
As the father Aristone, James Harrison brought a compassionate, if a little bumbling, nature to the role. If he was often drowned out by the orchestra, he sang with a gently lyrical tone though he didn’t quite have the vocal power to project his lowest notes in “Let us consider the source of a river”.
Trofonio himself doesn’t get a lot to do, despite the opera being about his mysterious lair but Matthew Stiff made the most of what was written, with a commanding tone in his opening invocation of the spirits to assist him in his tricks that reminded one of the music for the Commendatore.
Due to unforeseen circumstances the role of the serious minded Ofelia was split between Catherine Backhouse who sang from the side of the stage whilst Marieke Bernard-Berkel acted out the role onstage. Coming in at such short notice, it was commendable that both performed well, with Barnard-Berkel miming through the role so convincingly that it was easy to just follow her actions and forget that she wasn’t singing. Backhouse herself sang well, producing some rich held notes in the exquisite “The fire of love and ardour”, a movement reminiscent of “Dove sono”. Her Act 2 aria following her transformation into a right little vixen was acted well and sung with humour, both performers seeming to enjoy themselves immensely, enjoyment that was shared by the audience.
By contrast, her more energetic sister Dori, sung by Aoife O’Sullivan, was a charming soubrette, though even she was given the chance of a more reflective aria in “Having secured a lover”. Both sopranos blended their voices well in the many ensemble pieces, though they kept a pleasantly distinctive tone much in keeping with their sharply differentiated characters. She worked well with Nicholas Merryweather, who took the role of her partner Plistene, with their duet, “In the average kind of marriage”, providing a similarly teasing relationship to that of Figaro and Susanna in Act 4 of Figaro. They introduced some charming comic effects in their bickering. Merryweather blustered through his part pleasantly and was able to produce a nice line of patter in the trio “”To help avoid a back-to-back collision”. His deeper tenor contrasted well with the lighter tone and higher range produced by Christopher Turner as Artemidoro. As with his performance last year in English Touring Opera’s production of Life on the Moon, his warm voice produced some fine legato phrasing, though there were moments in “These shady words”, with its overtones of “Che puro ciel” from Orfeo ed Euridice, that would have benefitted from this same approach rather than the rather hard attack with which he reached some of the higher notes. As with Merryweather the more spirited patter moments were delivered impishly and clearly.
This was very much an ensemble piece with the principal characters of the lovers acting and singing well together. One can only hope that this charming piece will get further similarly unpretentious airings.
(Photos : Anthony Hall / Bampton Classical Opera)