Bampton Classical Opera – Salieri’s At the Venice Fair


La fiera di Venezia – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by Giovanni Gastone Boccherini [sung in an English translation by Gilly French and Jeremy Gray]

Duke Ostrogoto – Andrew Henley
Marchioness Calloandra – Sarah Chae
Falsirena – Ellen Mawhinney
Belfusto – Aaron Kendal
Grifagno – Philip Sheffield
Rasoio – Guy Beynon
Cristallina – Iúnó Connolly

The Orchestra of Bampton Classical Opera
Thomas Blunt

Jeremy Gray – Director & Designer
Harvey Evans – Associate Director
Karen Halliday – Choreography
Pauline Smith & Anne Baldwin – Costumes
Ian Chandler – Lighting

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 21 July, 2023
Venue: Deanery Gardens, Bampton, Oxfordshire, England

Salieri’s sixth opera, La fiera di Venezia (1772) is set during Venice’s famous Ascension Day ceremony (the Festa della Sensa) rather than at carnival time earlier in the year and is rendered here as At the Venice Fair in Gilly French and Jeremy Gray’s translation, updating some of its references and idioms. The librettist, incidentally, was the brother of Luigi Boccherini, the far more famous composer and cellist. As with so much eighteenth-century operatic repertoire, including most of Salieri’s own sizeable output, the opera has remained virtually forgotten, even though it was one of the composer’s more widespread successes in his lifetime. And a distant echo of its fame remained in the fact that Mozart composed some keyboard variations on the melody of ‘Mio caro adone’ (K180) which appears in the midst of the extended sectional or ‘chain’ finale to Act Two. 

Gray’s production sets the action against a backdrop of colourful, eye-grabbing, touristic photographs of Venice in contemporary times, astutely tying in with the fact that the opera’s original scenario itself conjures up a city as popular with visitors in the eighteenth-century as now, with much substandard accommodation (Rasoio presides over a less than ideal inn) and traders peddling all sorts of gewgaw wares and trinkets (Cristallina offers lacework and lingerie to Falsirena, and the latter amusingly takes an item of underwear to be a mantilla).  Although many of the work’s themes are common to just about every opera buffa of the time, it is nevertheless striking how the central plot foreshadows Mozart’s two outstandingly ingenious comedies of a decade and a half later, The Marriage and Figaro and to some extent Don Giovanni, which would both significantly develop and subvert the genre. At the centre is a philandering aristocrat, Duke Ostrogoto – broadly and blusteringly projected by Andrew Henley with an apt degree of slyness – who takes a fancy to his social inferior, Falsirena, despite being already engaged to the Marchioness Calloandra, in Venice herself for the fair.

Much of the comedy arises from the ruses to corner and shame him, and his attempts to keep the two women apart. It doesn’t have the biting social and political satire of Figaro and resolves with a conventional happy ending as the three couples are paired off correctly and can get married as planned. There is nothing of Don Giovanni’s punitive conclusion therefore, though the masked ball scene of Act Two’s finale prefigures the similar episode in Mozart’s opera with its mixture of dances in the music. Calloandra’s ultimately forbearing and merciful attitude draws a close comparison with Countess Almaviva, underlined by Sarah Chae’s impressively agile singing and finely delineated melodic lines, even if her diction isn’t always quite clear. The dignified rendition of her first aria puts one in mind of ‘Porgi amor’, as the programme note rightly suggests; and the coloratura sparkle of her concluding number displays the Marchioness’s magnanimous nature, like the Countess, in forgiving the Duke, although the additional colour of concertante flute and oboe anticipates the similar scoring and style of Konstanze’s gutsy ‘Marten aller Marten’ in The Abduction from the Seraglio.

Ellen Mawhinney is a persuasive Falsirena, using vibrato efficiently to bring allure and charm to her music as she strings along both the Duke      and her existing boyfriend, Belfusto, but also navigates with winning virtuosity her disguises as an opera singer, a French cosmetics salesperson, and a German noblewoman. Aaron Kendall whimpers and laments mellifluously as that unfortunate lover, while Philip Sheffield projects a certain brazen guile as her skinflint father, Grifagno. Guy Beynon evinces a delicately light, winsome tone as the innkeeper, being eventually matched up with Iúnó Connolly’s saucy Cristallina.

The small forces of the Bampton Classical Opera orchestra keep up an engaging, animated account of the music, which suits the prevailing cheerfulness of the drama. Woodwind and horns add an intermittent warmth to the strings’ dependable gloss. Although Salieri probably didn’t know any of the compositions by the natively Venetian Vivaldi, in this performance the buzzing semiquavers which accompany the lottery scene at the end of Act One rather evokes the fizzing energy of the sinfonias or concertos for strings without soloist by that composer. Overall, the production captures the good spirits of a lively opera.

Further performances on August 28 (Westonbirt) & September 13 (St John’s Smith Square)

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