2018 marks the 25th anniversary of Bampton Classical Opera, who specialise in “breathing new life” into rare 18th-century opera. This year’s offering ticks both boxes: it’s the little-known Cendrillon of Franco-Maltese composer Nicolò Isouard, the opera on which Rossini based his blockbuster hit La Cenerentola, which swiftly pitched Isouard’s Cendrillon into obscurity. However, before Rossini’s ravishing Cenerentola swept the stage, her now-unknown French forbear was the star of an acclaimed opera féerie (fairytale opera) which received more than an hundred packed-out performances in Paris before its eclipse.

Kate Howden (Cendrillon) and Bradley Smith (Prince Ramir)
© Bampton Classical Opera

Cendrillon contains all the Enlightenment ideas for which La Cenerentola is so justly celebrated, substituting the wise philosopher Alidor for the fairy godmother, having the Prince swap identities with his valet Dandini for most of the story, but also adding in a Sandman for some fairytale sparkle. If you know Cenerentola well, it feels familiar, but still has a few surprises in store: Cendrillon’s plot feels more balanced, its characters less extreme and more human. There are no chimes at midnight: Cinderella runs away in fear from the ball when she discovers her beloved’s true identity, not believing she could ever be a princess.

Gilly French provides a fresh, crisp English translation of Charles Guillaume Etienne’s libretto, with a little original French retained here and there for comic effect (the key joke being that Cinderella’s ghastly sisters can’t speak French). With a strong pulse of rhyme, French’s translation slides from noble simplicity (“Be ever assured: you are the one that heaven chose”) to contemporary playfulness (“What a nightmare!”), giving the opera an accessible feel. French’s translation is elastic enough for the confident cast to insert topical jokes, too: on the opening night, possibly the opera’s UK première, the rain poured unhelpfully down on Bampton’s exquisite Deanery Garden, but spontaneous umbrella jokes (rhyming nicely with ‘Cinderella’) were out in force. Both the fine cast and the Orchestra of Bampton Classical Opera, conducted with vigour by Harry Sever, remained magnificently professional under rising deluge conditions on the outdoor stage, and audience spirits were not in the least dampened (though pretty much everything else had been) as we filed into the mercifully dry church after the interval for Acts 2 and 3. After all, it would hardly be English summer opera without an occasional spot (or downpour) of rain.   

Jenny Stafford (Tisbe), Benjamin Durrant (Dandini) and Aoife O'Sullivan (Clorinde)
© Bampton Classical Opera

Jeremy Gray’s direction imbues Cendrillon with plenty of life: acting is natural and expressive, with some zingy choreography (particularly for stepsister Tisbe’s tango at the all-important ball) and regular touches of comic silent stage business. Gray’s design recalls Cinderella’s folk history, with a tree bearing golden apples outside the kitchen where our heroine prays to her mother, while costumes have a 1950s feel. Gray unfailingly builds his cast into a confident, enthusiastic team: we get a true ensemble piece in which singers support one another as well as shining in their own right. Nicholas Merryweather was on top form as Alidor, his virile baritone glowing with drama and warmth as the wise philosopher benevolently brings about happiness for his young charges, taking a paternal interest in Cinderella as well as Bradley Smith’s charming, tender Prince, who struck just the right note of humility and courage with his flowing, expansive tenor. Smith’s compulsive, magnetic attraction to his Cinderella was a delight, scarcely able to tear his eyes from hers, their mutual infatuation palpable.

Kate Howden’s Cinderella came across with charming simplicity, her graceful, generous mezzo well suited to the part; Howden’s spoken acting did not match the emotional sophistication of her singing, but this worked here, her uncomplicated approach simply underlining Cinderella’s artless innocence. Cinderella’s soprano stepsisters, all snarls, curlers and vintage copies of Vogue, were brilliantly portrayed by Aoife O’Sullivan as Clorinde, the sister whose penchant for singing translates into a self-consciously stellar aria at the ball, and Jenny Stafford as Tisbe, the sister who relies on her dancing to catch the Prince’s eye, later getting a fabulous aria of her own as she furiously reflects on a disastrous night. O’Sullivan and Stafford both revelled in the inner nastiness of these silly, selfish girls while relishing their frankly sumptuous music.

Aoife O'Sullivan (Clorinde), Kate Howden (Cendrillon) and Jenny Stafford (Tisbe)
© Bampton Classical Opera

Baritone Alistair Ollerenshaw, his deft characterisation nicely louche, makes you wish Baron de Montefiascone had a rather bigger part – Rossini made the right change here. Benjamin Durrant’s suave and delightfully oily Dandini pranced through the ball ably kindling jealousy between Tisbe and Clorinde, with Lucy Cronin and Susanne Dymott providing able assistance as court ladies and the Sandman.

Isouard’s score is lyrical, elegant and satisfying, with a painterly Dream Sequence at the opening of Act 2; it’s no wonder the French took it straight to their hearts. Bampton’s “mission to rescue unjustly neglected classical period opera” is vindicated once again.