Having seen Rigoletto and Otello only days beforehand, I came to Salieri’s The Chimney Sweep expecting light relief, something which would function as did the satyr play after a string of Athenian dramatic tragedies. And I wasn’t disappointed: under the expert leadership of Erin Helyard, the singers and instrumentalists delivered an outstanding performance of this frothy comedy. It has been Salieri’s tragedy to have largely been overlooked by history, save when it is insinuated by playwrights such as Pushkin and Peter Shaffer that he murdered Mozart. Alas, Mozart’s ghost continued to hover over this performance, with the opening orchestral introduction sounding very much like the Overture to The Marriage of Figaro (NB: Salieri’s was the earlier work) and Helyard embroidering the opening theme from the Finale of Mozart’s Sonata in F KV332 and a hint of Eine kleine Nachtmusik into one improvised passage.

Stuart Haycock (Volpino) and Amelia Farrugia (Mrs Hawk) © Keith Saunders
Stuart Haycock (Volpino) and Amelia Farrugia (Mrs Hawk)
© Keith Saunders

This Singspiel (literally ‘sung play’) would originally have been in German, but most of the sung and spoken portions of Leopold Auenbrugger’s libretto were rendered in colloquial English here by Andrew Johnston and Mark Gaal respectively. The resultant work contained lines like “cool and easy, smooth not sleazy”, and “my God, they go ballistic!” Part of the point of the opera is to satirise opera seria practices, and these Italian-language portions remained untranslated. Many of the characters are named after animals: the Hawks, mother and daughter; their suitors, Mr Bear and Mr Wolf respectively; and the eponymous chimney sweep, Volpino, a name which hints at his fox-like (=vulpine) cunning. The other major singing roles are the cook Lisel (betrothed to Volpino), and the Master Sweep, Tomaso, who appears like a deus ex machina at the end to resolve matters. A number of mainly non-singing servants (two in drag) and a chorus of child chimney sweeps completed the cast.

The plot contains the usual twists and turns one expects of 18th century farce, but in essence involves Volpino using his musical gifts to seduce his employers, the Hawks, so as to better his financial situation and enable him to marry his Lisel. The idea of the servant outwitting his betters is a familiar one in 18th century comic opera, from Pergolesi’s La serva padrona (the maid as mistress) to Mozart’s Figaro. Although perhaps not a true meta-opera (like Richard Strauss’s Capriccio, or Salieri’s own Prima la musica, poi le parole), much of the music here is what the characters themselves hear as singing, also known as ‘diegetic/source music’, or ‘phenomenal song’. For instance, Volpino demonstrates his tenor voice to the adoring ladies, and then proceeds to give them lessons on their chosen Italian arias; Bear demonstrates in a delightful aria the “15 skills you must possess to be a singer of finesse”; and the final part of Act I is an impromptu ensemble performance of the story of Ganymede and the nymphs (sung in German here).

Alexandra Oomens (Lisel) © Keith Saunders
Alexandra Oomens (Lisel)
© Keith Saunders

The aforementioned Italian arias were both the butt of satire and also opportunities for the singers to show off their skills, something which was particularly apparent in the numbers sung in Act I. First up was Stuart Haycock, who as Volpino went up to a high D (a satire perhaps on the castrato tradition?). The following two arias, in which the women try to impress the same man, inevitably became a kind of vocal duel. Amelia Farrugia (as Mrs Hawk) was all flouncy trills and fast passage-work, while her on-stage daughter (Janet Todd) combined fine vocal control with some risqué antics on the fortepiano (think Michelle Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys). The third female lead, Alex Oomens, demonstrated a pearl-like youthful tone and plenty of acting ability in the role of Lisel: a bright future awaits her.

The male leads were perhaps slightly less in vocal quality, but all played their parts with gusto. Christopher Saunders (Wolf) sounded a little pushed when going for the higher notes, but David Woloszko was a solid and effective Bear, and the same could be said for David Hidden as Tomaso. At one point, it seemed as if the non-singing Fränzl (Nicholas Hiatt in a dress) was going to be given a number, but in an inspired musical joke, he was interrupted just as the introductory orchestral ritornello came to an end. The actor Gary Clementson contributed some comic business, while Troy Honeysett performed some impressive physical feats. The orchestra gave a polished stylish performance, with occasional moments when the horns went sharp the most notable imperfections.

Stuart Haycock (Volpino), David Woloszko (Mr Bear), Nicholas Hiatt (Fränzl) and Gary Clementson © Keith Saunders
Stuart Haycock (Volpino), David Woloszko (Mr Bear), Nicholas Hiatt (Fränzl) and Gary Clementson
© Keith Saunders

In short: this was another successful Pinchgut venture, which restores to the stage a fun and historically significant work. On the evidence, Salieri was no Mozart (the level of invention, especially in the finales, was nothing remotely comparable), but there is plenty of enjoyment to be had from this precedent-setting German opera.