Despite Good Singing Completed Mozart Opera Buffa Fails to Enthral

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart and Stephen Oliver, L’Oca del Cairo: Soloists, Oriana Choir, London Mozart Players, David Parry (conductor). St John’s, Smith Square, London, 14.3.2016. (MB)

Don Pippo – Quirijn de Lang
Celidora – Fflur Wyn
Lavina – Soraya Mafi
Biondello – Robert Murray
Auretta – Ellie Laugharne
Donna Pantea – Victoria Simmonds
Calandrino – Christopher Diffey
Chichibio – Alexander Robin Baker

I wanted to like this; I really did. On the face of it, it seemed to offer so much of what I liked, so much of what I approved. Stephen Oliver’s 1990 completion of Mozart’s aborted opera buffa, L’Oca del Cairo is neither an exercise in pastiche nor in pasticcio. Instead, Oliver composes his own music and reworks the plot and libretto to create something theatrically viable, or so the claim goes. Alas, there remains too much and too little of Giovanni Battista Varesco. English translation probably does not help, but nor does the reordering, which renders a silly libretto more straightforwardly confusing. I am afraid to say I gave up trying to work out what was going on, excellent diction from an impressive cast notwithstanding.

The real problem, I think, is Oliver’s music. Reading the programme, one learns that this was someone who clearly meant a great deal to a number of friends, Jonathan Dove (who gave a brief, spoken introduction) and Jane Glover included. That does not, alas, translate for the rest of us into being an interesting composer. There is certainly competence, never to be disdained; someone could hardly have composed forty-four (!) operas without gaining a good deal of craftsmanship. By the sound of it – the programme tributes, rather than the other forty-three operas, which I doubt I shall be listening to – such craftsmanship was indeed there all along. I had previously encountered Oliver as provider of new secco recitatives (to replace the wretched efforts of Süssmayr) for La clemenza di Tito: an important job, very well done, to be found on a Glyndebourne DVD under Andrew Davis. There he writes ‘in style’, and indeed my sole complaint would be that there is nothing evidently of the new to them; in some moods, I have longed for a Berio, now for someone else, to do something more with and indeed to the work. Here, Oliver writes in what I must presume to be his own style and language, which emerges, a few more modernist moments aside, as rather drearily sub-Britten, even Shostakovich-like. A repeated slow waltz intrigued, but it was not entirely clear to me what it was doing where it was. For the most part, it all sounds a bit 1980s Channel 4, or maybe BBC 2. There is far more Oliver than there is Mozart; with one exception, in the final scene, in which the (new) composer interpolates himself, they follow each other in orderly fashion, with contrast of a sort, but one that served only to have me long for the return of Mozart.

That return would have been more welcome, had David Parry not harried Mozart so. His was a ruthlessly hard-driven, quite charmless account of Mozart’s contributions: Mackerras, and then some; or, if you prefer, Rossini without any smiles. The London Mozart Players themselves sounded splendid. At least they were not denied vibrato, although Mozart really needs a larger band (only four first violins), even in so warm an acoustic as that of St John’s Smith Square. Parry and the ensemble sounded more at home in Oliver; it is doubtless my problem that I was not. Peter Schreier’s CPE Bach Chamber Orchestra recording is a much better bet (along with Colin Davis, no less, in Lo sposo deluso).

That said, there was some good singing to enjoy. The young cast acted well, insofar as what was essentially a concert performance permitted, interacting with each other impressively in vocal terms too. I was especially pleased to hear Quirijn de Lang’s agile baritone; more than once, I thought I should like to hear him as Count Almaviva. Robert Murray’s tenor was more of a known quantity to me, but no less welcome for that; his performance was just as alert and lively. Likewise that of Christopher Diffey, both vocally and dramatically (insofar as the work permitted). Alexander Robin Baker showed a similar gift for comedy and style. At times, Ellie Laugharne’s performance was a little strident for my taste, but hers was a committed performance nevertheless. All of the vocal performances had something valuable to offer, soprano Soraya Mafi another welcome discovery for me.

Mark Berry


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