Bampton Classical Opera – Haydn’s The Apothecary

Lo speziale – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by Carlo Goldoni [sung in an English translation by John Warrack]

Sempronio – Guy Beynon
Grilletta – Iúnó Connolly
Mengone – Henry Ross
Volpino – Madeline Robinson

Mark Austin (piano)

Jeremy Gray – Director
Emily Whatmore – Costumes

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 5 September, 2023
Venue: Marylebone, London

The Apothecary (1768) was the first opera that Haydn wrote (in Italian as Lo speziale) for the court at Esterháza (inaugurating its opera house). It sets a libretto by the prominent Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni and condenses the typical elements of mid and late 18th century opera buffa to a scenario with just four characters. In this case Sempronio, the eponymous chemist, has designs to marry his ward, Grilletta. His apprentice, Mengone, and a young dandy, Volpino, are also besotted with her – but it is only Mengone that she loves. Despite a tiff between the pair, and two tricks to fend off Sempronio – featuring the two suitors in disguise as lawyers and Turks (the usual satirical targets of the genre) – all resolves satisfactorily when Mengone finally triumphs over his rivals.  

As there are no other characters to perpetrate any subplots among different social strata, the work’s compactness suited well this more intimate salon-style performance with piano accompaniment alone. But it was still effectively staged to the extent of having the characters in costume appropriate to the period and some props, allowing the singers to act out the scenario with wit and alacrity. Their clear diction neatly conveyed John Warrack’s English translation of the text, with a few jokes and idioms of its own without disrupting the tenor of the libretto.

Iúnó Connolly gives an impassioned account of Grilletta, acting and expressing the character’s bolder streak which comes through the music’s coloratura, more than in the text which doesn’t make her nearly so fearsome. Henry Ross is as securely committed in the part of her lover, displaying due ardour, as well as keen humour in the opera’s one relatively well-known aria in which he lauds the qualities of a laxative that he is preparing. In the trouser role of Volpino (by which the cast’s quartet of voices are happily balanced between pairs of female and male voices) Madeline Robinson is direct and concise in hatching the plans by which the schemer seeks to win Grilletta’s affections (ultimately in vain). Guy Beynon is caught up in all the vivacity with quite a light, airy rendition of Sempronio, which could be more vigorous and impassioned as the strict patriarchal figure (even if, essentially, a buffoon) to draw more of a contrast with the other parts.

Mark Austin leads proceedings from the piano, not simply playing the part of dutiful accompanist, but imparting personality and adroitly sustaining a dramatic flow between the arias and recitatives more or less continuously. If the opera itself is lively but inconsequential, it was delivered here with urbane charm.

Further performance (with orchestra) at Wadhurst, East Sussex on 9 September

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