Bampton Classical Opera celebrates 30 years with a gorgeous UK premiere of Salieri’s At the Venice Fair

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bampton Classical Opera – Salieri, At the Venice Fair (La fiera di Venezia): Soloists, Orchestra of Bampton Classical Opera / Thomas Blunt (conductor). Bampton, Oxfordshire, 21.7.2022. (CP)

Bampton Classical Opera’s At the Venice Fair © Anthony Hall/BCO

Director and Designer – Jeremy Gray
Associate director – Harvey Evans
Choreography and Movement – Karen Halliday
Costumes – Pauline Smith, Anne Baldwin
Lighting – Ian Chandler

Duke of Ostrogoto – Andrew Henley
Marchioness Calloandra – Sarah Chae
Falsirena – Ellen Mawhinney
Belfusto – Aaron Kendall
Grifagno – Philip Sheffield
Rasoio – Guy Beynon
Cristallina – lúnó Connolly
Caterina – Harriet Cameron
Valentina – Tilly Goodwin
Checco – Osian Clarke
Orlando – Owain Rowlands

Blessed with warm sunshine, the gardens at the Deanery in Bampton are the ultimate summer opera venue. A super setting deserved a super performance of the Salieri UK premiere, At the Venice Fair, a delightful 1772 opera buffa experience with big choral scenes, a rollicking libretto with clever English translation by Gilly French, plenty of dances, eighteen arias giving rise to lots of comedy moments. Looking down on this huge success would be a delighted Bampton donor, none other than Joyce Grenfell, via the Memorial Trust in her name. She would have adored the way the simplicity of the work, its clarity, its naturalness wove their way through the drama delivering some of the most amusing moments heard at this year’s summer operas. Director Jeremy Gray’s programme notes make a special reference to how well Salieri understood the seriousness of light entertainment. Grenfell would fully approve of that! Others have admired the work, not least the Monty Python Flying Circus production team when they used the exciting opening bars as signature music for a 1974 episode.

Prone to frequent tampering with his scores, Salieri was not unknown to repeat bars unnecessarily! Thanks to the tenacity and diligence of French and Gray, the manuscript, with all those repeated bars, was discovered in Dresden and brought back to life for UK opera-loving audiences – a ‘new to UK’ opera which many will now wish to produce, enjoy and marvel at the composer’s skill in constructing those eighteen arias with three particularly delightful coloratura ones which Sarah Chae (Marchioness Calloandra) took every opportunity to exploit to the full. At the Venice Fair became one of Salieri’s best regarded works during his lifetime being staged many times across Europe. In admiration of the composer’s skill, Mozart composed a set of variations for piano (K.180) on a theme from this opera – a friendly gesture from the younger composer to the elder.

Conductor, Thomas Blunt’s longstanding links with Bampton gives huge confidence to all on stage. He is a master of pace, knowing exactly when to choose the longer pause and when to lift the tempo. Small the band may be, just fifteen, but the sound is exquisite. Elegant flute (Emme Bains) and oboe playing (David Benfield) provided excellent support to the delightful arias in Act III, by which time the trickery and deception which develops at pace in Act II has been exposed.

Act I, set in a Venetian piazza, a market square full of varied merchandise on stalls is the chance for Duke Ostrogoto (Andrew Henley) to escape the clutches of his fiancée, the Marchioness. In so doing he takes time to engage with his new love, Falsirena (Ellen Mawhinney). She is an instant success with the audience, she radiates charm and guile at the same time; her voice is strong and she enjoys being the centre of attention on stage. What potential she has! Now in her first year at Royal Academy Opera she is one student to watch for a big future. No matter what her disguise – out of work opera singer, lover, or peasant girl – she demands special attention.

Aaron Kendall (Belfusto) and Sarah Chae (Marchioness Calloandra) © Anthony Hall/BCO

South Korean born Chae, the long-suffering fiancée Marchioness Calloandra, has a challenging time trying to prevent her beloved straying too far. This Chae achieves when, ultimately, she confronts Henley’s Duke with the truth about his behaviour, singing the aria, I am your bride and lover, one of the evening’s top highlights and a truly memorable moment. Henley is a confident performer; Chae and Mawhinney are the stars; lúnó Connolly, the lace seller and her four stall-holder colleagues, Harriet Cameron, Tilley Goodwin, Osian Clarke and Owain Rowlands, all make the most pleasing of contributions in the marketplace and at the ball which ends the second act. Wearing identical ball gowns, the Marchioness and Falsirena successfully expose the unfaithfulness of their lover. (Pauline Smith and Anne Baldwin deserve special mention for the creation of those beautiful, often stunning costumes.) Act III sees the happy ending with the Marchioness finally marrying the Duke, and Falsirena, securing her release from the clutches of the Duke, receiving the Marchioness’s forgiveness, and marrying the persistent Belfusto (Aaron Kendall). Meanwhile Rasoio (Guy Benyon) the scheming innkeeper at the Black Ox tavern marries the delightful lace seller, Cristallina who sings with such happiness, With what delight I’m leaping with joy.

The introduction of several ornamented stems of gondolas helps build At the Venice Fair to a fabulous finale with lights on the bushes and in the wings depicting the gas lights of a Venice quayside. Bampton Classical Opera has discovered yet another hidden gem not previously heard in the UK; one which is here to stay.

Clive Peacock

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