Since 1993, Bampton Classical Opera has been resurrecting early operatic works from obscurity and mounting them in imaginative new productions in the gardens of the local church. This year’s presentation of unfamiliar one-acters by Gluck and Arne is typical Bampton fare, and provides excellent opportunities for emerging young singers. The deanery garden of St Mary’s Church is an ideal setting for these intellectually untaxing works; and when the gods of summer music festivals are smiling and balmy skies are granted, the chief worry becomes that the performance itself may seem no more than an agreeable side dish, to go with the wine and canapés brought along by picnicking audience members.

Christopher Turner (Jupiter) © Anthony Hall for Bampton Classical Opera
Christopher Turner (Jupiter)
© Anthony Hall for Bampton Classical Opera

Another worry is the works themselves. Although they deal variously with love, fidelity and compassion, these weighty themes are here given a light, even playful touch: a wrathful god becomes a mildly stroppy tourist, the disorienting power of physical attraction descends into an overawed grope in a cubicle. Even an orchestral storm is no more than a benign parade of pretty notes and arpeggios. From the first note of Gluck’s overture to Philemon and Baucis – composed as part of the celebrations of the (ultimately unhappy) marriage of an Austrian Archduchess to an Parmese Duke – it is clear we are in a benevolent universe, where quarrels are quickly resolved and happy endings assured. But can pleasant music and committed acting/singing suffice, in the absence of true dramatic tension?

That both works retain and reward attention is a tribute to director Jeremy Gray, who has updated and relocated the action to a present day airport, exploiting a loosely shared theme of travel. A more pertinent connection is the god Jupiter, whose protean moods motor the action of each piece. In Philemon and Baucis, the god is physically present, at first in the mortal disguise of a disembarking passenger after a bad flight, whose generalised contempt for humanity is mitigated, then overcome through his encounter with the pair of titular lovers. Christopher Turner – a natural buffo performer, possessed with an authoritative tenor – gave a marvellously engaging turn as the capricious god, whose anger is merely a front for his basically sunny nature. Turner’s splendidly articulated recitative established the god’s character from the outset and his confident stage presence mark him out as a natural singer/actor. As the lovers, Catherine Backhouse and Barbara Cole Walton were nicely contrasted and if Walton’s security during her lengthy (and often gravity-defying) central aria was intermittent, her energy and commitment never flagged. A word too for Gilly French’s accomplished adaptation of the libretto, which pulled off the difficult feat of mixing the classical with the contemporary, so that even a couple of scene-setting anachronisms (Jupiter is asked if he would like “a cup of tea… and a chocolate biscuit” after his dreadful flight) didn’t jar.

Catherine Backhouse (Pallas), Aoife O'Sullivan (Venus) and Barbara Cole Walton (Juno) © Anthony Hall for Bampton Classical Opera
Catherine Backhouse (Pallas), Aoife O'Sullivan (Venus) and Barbara Cole Walton (Juno)
© Anthony Hall for Bampton Classical Opera

This was the British première of Gluck's opera, after a mere 247 years; but Arne’s The Judgement of Paris is possibly even more of an obscurity. William Congreve's libretto, written as his (losing) entry in a 1701 competition funded by wealthy English opera enthusiasts, preceded Arne's music by 41 years. The aim of the competition was to promote English opera and to do something about the parlous state into which it had fallen. It failed on both counts but Arne’s opera survives as a mildly engaging curio.

Although absent, Jupiter’s wishes are here conveyed by his messenger Mercury (Robert Anthony Gardiner) who in this staging adopts the persona of the airport baggage-handler: he requests the ‘shepherd’ Paris (Turner once again, this time as a passenger on a long haul flight) to award a golden apple to one of three beautiful goddesses – Juno, Pallas Athena and Venus – who are here ‘translated’ into three beautiful air hostesses. What follows is a beauty contest in which the ultimate victor is signposted from the start: Aoife O’Sullivan’s seductively sung Venus was suitably overwhelming, but the production couldn’t entirely disguise the thinness of the material.

Presiding in the pit, or covered tent at a right angle to the stage, Paul Wingfield kept both scores moving with relaxed confidence, and both orchestra and singers coped well in the face of some overheard interruptions courtesy of RAF Brize Norton. If there was an occasional loss of clarity from some of the singers, this was easily excused. Bampton Classical Opera is taking these productions to locations in Gloucestershire and London later in the summer and both are well worth seeing.

****1