First performed in Vienna in 1772, At the Venice Fair (La Fiera di Venezia) became one of the most successful musical comedies of the day, with performances as far afield as Cologne, Bonn, Warsaw, St Petersburg and Moscow, right up until the 1820s. For some reason it never made it to Britain; thus it was Bampton Opera which gave the British premiere in July this year, and this performance was the London premiere.
The opera’s action takes place during the Venetian Ascension Day fair, the Festa della Sensa. This was held to celebrate the annual ceremony when the Doge was rowed out into the Lido in his golden barge, and threw a ring into the sea, symbolising Venice’s union with the Adriatic. There was no golden barge in this production, however, the simple staging set the scene with vivid Venetian travel posters, and the cheerful costumes by Pauline Smith and Anne Baldwin updated the setting to the 1950s. Gilly French, the co-artistic director, is mainly responsible for the witty English translation.
Each character depicts a particular type, demonstrating the influence of the Commedia dell’arte. As the Commedia was also performed in the same venues as early opera in Venice, it is not perhaps surprising to see its influence on opera. In this case, there are three pairs of lovers from different social classes, the aristocrats, the middling sorts, and the common people, with the music depicting their social status: the aristocrats sing in the opera seria style, rather high-flown; and the traders and innkeeper sing in a livelier demotic style. Seeing how these characters interact also illuminates our own understanding of later operas, such as Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro which has similar class elements, as well as an unfaithful aristocrat who is outwitted by the lower classes.
The illuminating programme notes written by Jeremy Gray, one of the founders of Bampton Opera, show how the characters’ names embody their stock traits. The aristocratic tourist is named Ostrogoto, a ‘gothic’ name symbolising his lack of honesty. Here the tenor Andrew Henley managed to project the conflict between expectations of aristocratic power, embodied in his wealth, and the total sense of powerlessness when pulled between the two women in his life. He sang with a rich, lyrical tone, and having a strong stage presence. Indeed, highlights of his performance were his heartfelt aria ‘She has left and life is empty’, and his later aria sung during the ball scene which ends Act II, ‘When you look at me and smile’.
Ostrogoto is pursuing Falsirena, meaning ‘false siren’. She is the pretty and witty soubrette character, whose many disguises and machinations drive the plot, and an embodiment of Colombina from the Commedia. Here the soprano Ellen Mawhinney entered into the spirit of the role with great gusto and a strong dramatic sense; highlights were too many to mention, but standout moments were her arias in disguise as a French makeup seller, and later as a German sea-sick countess.
Falsirena already has a beau named Belfusto, which Gray translates wittily as ‘handsome hunk’. The character often sings of his jealousy as he sees Falsirena flirting with the Count. In this role Aaron Kendall demonstrated a rich tone which captured the lyrical mood in the aria ‘That lovely little cherub’, sung to Falsirena after she has promised she still loves him. Not forgetting his fast-moving ‘catalogue’ aria, which lists all the places from which Venice imports its goods: Africa, Asia, Russia, Germany, France, Spain, Persia, and Turkey.
Falsirena’s father, Grifagno, can be seen as a vecchi character from the Commedia, in that he is old, greedy and devious. Philip Sheffield (bass) managed the physical comedy extremely well, and sang with a warm tone.
The aristocratic Ostrogoto is already engaged to the Marchioness Calloandra, an opera seria character. Gray draws our attention to the parallels between this character, and the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro, both of whom are stuck with philandering partners and both of whom sing of their deeper noble feelings in powerful arias. Sarah Chae captured the plaintive mood here in the introspective ‘Vi sono sposa e amante’ (translation, ‘I am your bride and lover’). The highlight of the evening was her revenge aria at the end of Act I, full of vocal fireworks performed with a thrilling tone.
Other smaller roles include the Commedia types of zanni or servants, such as the lace seller Cristallina sung by the soprano Iúnó Connolly. Her arias, such as the one in which she describes how Falsirena will look like a Greek goddess in her lace underwear, were sung with a rich, well focussed tone, and a cheerful and lively characterisation. Her lover, Rasoio, the landlord of the Black Bull, the only honest male character, was sung by Guy Beynon with conviction, and a good sense of comic timing in his (failed) efforts to straighten things out.
So, we have seen the main characters, the setting is Venice at Carnival time; what could go wrong? According to Gray, the farcical plot is an ‘amorous muddle’; it is certainly exacerbated by the disguises donned in the elaborate masked ball which ends act two. Finally, at the end of act three, the disharmony is resolved, and the couples are happily paired with the correct partners.
The orchestra (CHROMA), ably conducted by Thomas Blunt, played with a crisp vitality, alternating with a quiet pathos in those rare moments which required it; and the harpsichordist, Alex Norton, supported with appropriate musical flourishes. Smaller roles were sung by Harriet Cameron, Tilly Goodwin, Osian Clarke, and Owain Rowlands; these stars of the future were musically thrilling, filling the building with glorious sound.
Bampton Opera have been rediscovering lost and forgotten operas for the past 30 years, including several by Salieri, who was better known in his lifetime than Mozart. Anyone who is interested in the development of the theatre in the eighteenth century should not miss next year’s performance.