Bampton Classical Opera – Christoph Willibald Gluck’s La Corona

La corona – Azione teatrale in one act to a libretto by Pietro Metastasio [sung in Italian with spoken English narration]

Atalanta – Samantha Louis-Jean
Meleagro – Harriet Eyley
Climene – Lisa Howarth
Asteria – Lucy Anderson

Rosa French (narrator)

Robert Howarth

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 18 May, 2021
Venue: St John’s, Smith Square, London

With a certain dark humour, Bampton Classical Opera present Gluck’s aptly named one-act opera La corona – originally planned to be performed last November before the second lockdown intervened and after BCO’s principal summer festival in 2020 was cancelled because of the pandemic.

This azione teatrale was composed in 1765 by Gluck and the great Italian librettist Pietro Metastasio for the name day of the Habsburg Emperor Francis I, husband of Maria Theresa. But, in a rather poignant parallel with so many musical and theatrical performance over the last 14 months in the present time, the planned premiere never took place as the Emperor died beforehand, and so the music was never heard in the composer’s lifetime.

The crown of the title is that which is awarded to the champion of the Calydonian hunt (an episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses) who has the task of killing the boar ravaging the countryside of Calydonia (in ancient Greece) which was sent as a punishment by the goddess Diana. BCO offer the work now as an allegory of hope that we may latch on to as we emerge from the pandemic and the enemy virus is finally reined in, if not entirely killed off like the boar. But it might also serve as an ironic comment upon the conduct of national leaders and politicians around the world, hardly any of whom have come out of the crisis deserving of a crown for their handling of it.

In this performance four eloquent sopranos sing the roles of the three women who all yearn to take part in the hunt, and of Meleagro – the beloved of Atalanta, who dissuades them from the danger of participating. Samantha Louis-Jean powerfully sustains and projects the character of Atalanta who actually wields the fatal blow upon the boar, before giving the crown to the statue of Diana to assuage her wrath. The coloratura of her two arias is very much in Gluck’s ‘unreformed’ style, falling back on the more florid sort of vocal writing which he cultivated before he started to simplify his approach to operatic form in Orfeo ed Euridice, three years before La Corona. Louis-Jean is firmly in control of those ornate lines, but the somewhat exaggerated final cadences of both arias are clunky.

Harriet Eyley is a fearsome Meleagro, slightly brittle at times, but achieving some sublime soaring notes, and together she and Louis-Jean blend lustrously in the climactic duet. In a single aria each, Lisa Howarth sings brightly as Atalanta’s sister Climene, and Lucy Anderson’s Asteria is confident, matching the forthright but not heavy-handed strings of CHROMA who accompany her with dotted rhythms.

Gluck’s Italian recitatives are dispensed with in favour of a simpler English narration between the numbers, declaimed with wry humour by Rosa French. By singing and acting without scores, the performers help to make the occasion seem less artificial than it inevitably has to be otherwise with the socially distanced and masked audience. Robert Howarth directs a lively interpretation from the harpsichord. The strings are sometimes thin, though they bloom more during Meleagro’s first aria. But a warm, rich sonority from the bass line and the bassoons provides a robust foundation, as do the two horns, even if the arpeggios of the latter in Asteria’s aria are not quite exact. In any case, such minor flaws can easily be overlooked in favour of the sheer joy in being able to experience live music again, having been one of the activities most impacted by the restrictions of the pandemic. For me as, doubtless for many in the audience, it seemed unreal to be with other people in the presence of real music making again after so long.

Further performance on 22 May at the University Church, Oxford

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