Bampton Classical Opera is a company dedicated to performing rarely-performed 18th-century operas, and every summer they stage a new production with a cast of young and upcoming singers at their base in Bampton in Oxfordshire. This year’s production was a double-bill of French opéras comiques by Philidor and Grétry, which they brought to London’s St John’s Smith Square last week. The conductor (Andrew Griffiths) and the cast were unchanged from the summer production but in London, the orchestral part was played by Chroma.

François-André Danican Philidor (1726-95) and André Erneste Modeste Grétry (1741-1813) were both popular French opera composers in the mid-18th century, although stylistically their music is quite different. In this production, what links the two operas Blaise le savetier (Philidor, 1759) and L’amant jaloux (Grétry, 1778) is more the plot – and especially the “wardrobe”, which plays a crucial role in both works. In both operas, the characters hide in the wardrobe to escape from jealous men, which will sound very familiar to anyone who knows Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. In fact, such scenes were commonplace in 18th-century comic operas. In particular, watching Grétry’s L’amant jaloux, I was surprised how many similarities there were with Mozart’s Figaro in terms of plot and operatic form, and it made me realise that Figaro didn’t suddenly appear from nowhere but was founded on a tradition of comic operas which Mozart experienced in Paris – although admittedly Mozart elevated it to a higher level of musical imagination.

On this occasion, both operas were performed in English, which was helpful, as they had a fair amount of spoken dialogue. The Philidor was in period costume, whereas the Grétry work, set in Cádiz, was updated to a modern setting. The staging, a fairly basic affair with a big antique wardrobe placed in the centre of the stage, served both operas with a few ornamental changes. As the orchestra was placed behind the stage, it must have been quite tricky for conductor Andrew Griffiths to keep the singers and orchestra together, but the playing was crisp and lively and there were some lovely wind solos.

Musically, Grétry’s L’amant jaloux (“The Jealous Lover”) was more substantial and had a couple of catchy and charming arias. The plot revolves around a young widow, Léonore (Aiofe O’Sullivan), who is in love with Don Alonze (Robert Anthony Gardiner) but her father (Oliver Dunn) won’t allow her to remarry for financial reasons. Matters are further complicated by Don Alonze’s uncontrolled jealousy, as well as the sub-plot involving a second pair of lovers, Don Alonze’s sister Isabelle (Martene Grimson) and a French officer Florival (Oliver Mercer). Soprano Aiofe O’Sullivan sung the role of Léonore with a clear voice and good technical control especially in her coloratura aria, and also the tenor Oliver Dunn impressed with his beautiful account of Florival’s serenade (which is accompanied by mandolin, as in Don Giovanni). Máire Flavin excelled both vocally and dramatically as the quick-witted maid Jacinte (a role that reminds one of Despina in Così fan tutte), and as Léonore’s father, the baritone Oliver Dunn sung authoritatively although he seemed a more benign father than the story suggested. There was also some lovely ensemble singing, especially in the final garden scene, again anticipating a similar scene in the final act of Mozart’s Figaro.

Philidor’s Blaise le savetier (“Blaise the Cobbler”), performed in the first half of the evening, was altogether a simpler affair. More of a slapstick comedy than an operatic plot, a poor cobbler Blaise and his wife Blaisine, who are behind with their rent, think up a clever plot to outwit their landlord Mr. Pinch and his wife. Both in terms of the story and musical style, it was clear that this opera was composed for the general public rather than royalty or aristocrats. The aria settings are relatively simple, but Philidor’s strengths lay in the ensemble writing and especially Blaise’s duets with both Mr. Pinch and Mrs. Pinch were highly entertaining. Robert Anthony Gardiner and Martene Grimson sung and played the lively young couple with wit, and Oliver Mercer and Aiofe O’Sullivan played the buffo roles of the landlord couple with great comic timing. On its own, I felt that this Philidor opera was musically slight, but combined with the more sophisticated Grétry work, it made for a pleasant evening and gave us an entertaining insight into the forgotten genre of French opéra comique.

Bampton Classical Opera with Chroma, at St Johns Smith SquareNahoko Gotoh reviews Bampton Classical Opera's double bill of French opéra comique at St John's Smith Square with Chroma.4