A bright Alpine vision of fresh air, blue skies and snowy mountains: Bampton Classical Opera's production of Il Parnaso Confuso, designed and directed by Jeremy Gray, moves Mount Parnassus closer to Austria than Greece, with the Muses in dirndls, Apollo in lederhosen, and an alphorn on stage. Written by Gluck (whose 300th anniversary it is this year) for the occasion of the second marriage of Archduke Joseph (later Emperor Joseph II) to Maria Josepha of Bavaria in 1765, the original première might be said to have been the ultimate in royal entertainment. The principal soloists were four royal princesses, while the conductor, Leopold, was the emperor's own younger brother.

© Anthony Hall
© Anthony Hall
Bampton Classical Opera's UK staged première instead showcases four young sopranos who all sing with skill and rich tone, creating an hour of elegant harmonies: the piece consists more of situation than action, but is charmingly realised. We begin with three Muses, Melpomene (Gwawr Edwards), Erato (Anna Starushkevych) and Euterpe (an energetic and magnetic Caryl Hughes) at leisure on Mount Parnassus. Suddenly, they are interrupted by Apollo (Aoife O’Sullivan), who requests that they produce an entertainment for the Archduke's wedding the very next day. As the Muses contemplate different ways to entertain the Habsburg court in a series of pretty arias, Apollo rushes back to say that the wedding has, in fact, already taken place and they must hurry at once to the court, causing some irritation amongst the Muses who do not like to be hurried. Tranquility is, however, restored by some quick-thinking compliments from Apollo, and the Muses descend from Parnassus to smile, finally, on the Archduke's wedding. In other words – very little happens, really, apart from some lovely singing.

© Anthony Hall
© Anthony Hall
The most extraordinary (and interesting) feature of this festa teatrale is that it has an original Italian libretto by Pietro Metastasio, who was more usually Gluck's aesthetic enemy. Most of Gluck's mature work, in conjunction with his gifted and outspoken librettist Calzabigi, is designed in direct opposition to Metastasio's highly ornate and ornament-focused lyrics. Here, however, Gluck worked directly with Metastasio. Translated into English by Gilly French, moments of Metastasio's wit and quickness still remain, but the words are largely lost in the singing. The piece is therefore very hard for the audience to follow in any detail, despite an interesting introductory essay in the programme, particularly as the plot is so scant. Given the rare interest of this work lies in its libretto, it felt like a missed opportunity to be so near it, and yet not to be able to engage directly with the text: to have heard it in Italian, with an English translation at hand to follow, would have given us a far better chance to see what it is really about. Nevertheless, we enjoyed some accomplished singing, in which Gwawr Edwards as Melpomene particularly stood out, lyrically and dramatically. Some light relief was provided at times by silent physical comedy from Dudley Brewis as Fritz, although his actions sometimes seemed more distracting than otherwise.

Bertoni's Orfeo, setting the same libretto Calzabigi wrote for Gluck's version of the story, is a piece with much more plot, direction, and dramatic energy, and in this second half of the evening Anna Starushkevych's Orfeo reigned supreme. Starushkevych's characterisation was nothing short of superb, depicting Orfeo as a very modern man haunted by grief, angrily refusing to accept the death of his wife Euridice (an affecting and soft-voiced Aoife O'Sullivan). Too often Orfeo, the ultimate ambassador for the power of music to enchant us, becomes an artistic cipher, a mere metaphor for the power of art in an ugly world, risking exceptional dullness – Starushkevych allowed him individuality and humanity which made his journey feel horrifying, eerie and relevant. Jeremy Gray's skene-like set for Il Parnaso Confuso cleverly doubled for Orfeo, moving us from a modern church funeral service to Hades, lit powerfully first in red to signify the Underworld, then green for the Elysian Fields. Thomas Herford was a sincere and earnest Imeneo, a wonderfully composed foil to the anguished Orfeo. Caryl Hughes, Gwawr Edwards and Robert Gildon took the smaller roles as Orfeo's friends, Furies, and Blessed Spirits haunting Elysium (which seemed to be imagined as an unending summer lunch party circa 1970), helpfully delineated by a series of lightning costume changes (Fiona Hodges and Pauline Smith). In his largely minimal setting, Gray used choreography to suggest much of the action, creating strong visual effects with swaying and twisting bodies to oppose, trap or impede Orfeo and Euridice as they tried to find their way out of hell. Again, Gilly French's translation was good where we could hear it, but often lost in the lyric sweep of the music.

We were treated throughout the evening to some wonderful playing by the CHROMA ensemble, who made a sweet and resonant sound, led by Marcus Barcham-Stevens as first violin. Thomas Blunt, conducting, held the ensemble and cast together well for most of the evening, although occasionally some singers would get a little forward or behind. After a summer of performing these pieces with The Orchestra of Bampton Classical Opera, however, it may have been difficult for the cast to get sufficient rehearsal time with CHROMA before this single performance at St John's Smith Square. 

Altogether, Bampton Classical Opera gave us an evening full of lovely sounds within a fresh, bright visualisation of these two rare pieces, featuring some strong performances from a cast of talented young singers: if only we could have had the words too, we could have had it all.