Bampton Classica Opera returns to the stage with their performance of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s (1714–1787) one-act opera, ‘The Crown’ (La Corona’). Filmed in front of a socially distanced audience at St John’s Smith Square, London it is wonderful that Bampton have also chosen to record the performance and make it available for viewers online.
I was not familiar with this delightful little opera, which was specially composed for the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis I and sung by his four daughters, the Archduchesses of Vienna in 1765. Indeed, in Bampton’s performance, they pay homage to the opera’s origins at the very end, where it is revealed that the singers are not Asteria, Atalanta, Climene, and Meleagro –the four characters who the audience have come to know– but are the four Archduchesses performing these roles. The twist ending was perhaps a little contrived for such a short opera, but it was a nice nod to history.
While all the arias are sung in Italian, there is also a narrator, Rosa French, who told most of the story in English. French skillfully draws in the audience as she tells the tale of three friends, Asteria, Atalanta, and Climene, who are angry that they cannot join the men on the hunt for a wild boar. The audience are first introduced to Atalanta, described as an androgenous and rather ‘modern’ woman, who desires to join the hunt. Her enthusiasm even inspires the timid Climene and Asteria to join in, though that was never Atalanta’s intention. When she realises that Climene and Asteria want to come with her, she tries to dull their interest through song, claiming the hunt is too risky for them all to take part in.
Singing Atalanta is Samantha Louis-Jean, whose voice perfectly suits Gluck’s fiery, fast-paced vocalisations. Her clear-cut, powerful soprano is incredibly agile, and she demonstrates exceptional control in her top register. Unfortunately, Louis-Jean’s stance –folded arms that clutched onto a grey shawl– made her appear coyer than one might expect the boyish Atalanta to be.
Hearing Atalanta, Melegro, who is Asteria’s brother, and the man leading the hunt, also tries to dissuade the women from joining the men. The trouser role is performed by Harriet Eyley, whose portrayal is vocally powerful and controlled and well-suited to the character. Climene follows Meleagro’s instructions and disappears towards a high tower so she could safely watch the events unfold, but Asteria is angry and even more determined to join the hunt. Lucy Anderson really sells the aria through her characterisation, showing Asteria to be defiant and rather headstrong. Anderson’s top register lacks a little control when compared to Louis Jean and Eyley, but overall, she is a joy to watch, and I hope Bampton give her more solo opportunities in future performances.
Atalanta decides to celebrate Asteria’s defiance in song affording Louis-Jean the chance to sing a second, much lengthier and more arduous aria, which she performed with just as much ease as the first. It should be noted that all the arias in this opera are particularly big sings, requiring stamina and a keen attention to detail.
Following Atalanta’s aria, Asteria takes off towards the river where the men are closing in on the boar. Atalanta, terrified her friend may end up seriously hurt, runs off after her. Wondering what has happened, Climene, returns from the tower and realises Atalanta and Asteria must have joined the hunt. Fearing they are in danger, she asks the nymphs to bring weapons, a request that is quickly fulfilled. The narrator cheekily notes that the audience will have to imagine the nymphs as there are no extras in this performance! Alone and afraid, Climene tries to calm herself with a song. In comparison to the other singers, Lisa Howarth is more reserved in her performance, which does suit the role, but she could be a little more dynamic in her vocal expression. The first section of the aria was a little quiet, but the balance improved as it progressed.
Following Climene’s aria, the opera quickly moves towards its climax. The narrator informs the audience that Atalanta wounds the boar and Meleagro delivers the killing blow, but in their duet, both are reticent to say who won the hunt, and the crown! It was a real treat to hear Louis-Jean and Eyley singing together. Their voices are dissimilar enough that the complex, intertwining vocal lines are easily distinguishable, but they also manage to strike a nice balance so that neither voice dominates over the other. Bampton should be commended for selecting four sopranos that all sound completely unique!
The orchestra were expertly directed by early music specialist, Robert Howarth, and I particularly want to mention oboist, Emma Fielding, whose colourful solos were exquisite.
Overall, ‘The Crown’ is a charming opera and well worth the £8. I am so pleased it was recorded and made available for download, otherwise I would not have been able to see it. The recording will be available until the end of August 2021.