Bampton Classical Opera’s concert performance of Gluck’s La corona reminded us of the enduring relevance and adaptability of those Greek myths. And what inadvertently apt timing it was for a work with this title, two hundred years after its composition.
Both Gluck and his librettist for La corona, Pietro Metastasio, were familiar names to the imperial Habsburg court of Vienna in the later eighteenth century. Indeed, Gluck had earlier experienced productive patronage as chamber musician to Prince Lobkowicz in Prague.
Gluck’s own compositional techniques may have derived from studying the operas of Lully and Rameau and from being a pupil of Sammartini in Milan, but it was his reforming creativity that enabled opera to evolve from the baroque to the classical era – more emphasis on drama, simplified recitative, and often notably shorter. For reasons less clear today, those works went by various descriptors, including drame lyrique, opéra comique, tragisches Singspiel, drama per musica, tragedia, perhaps reflecting Gluck’s cosmopolitan working environments.
But back to Vienna, where the Empress Maria Theresa commissioned La corona in 1765 as a surprise name-day present for her husband Francis I, the Holy Roman Emperor. The intended pleasure was to have been enhanced by allocating the four solo soprano roles to their Archduchess daughters, but sadly, Francis died suddenly in his carriage on the way home from a performance in Innsbruck of Gluck’s opera Iphigénie en Aulide. As a result, the celebration was cancelled, and La corona had to wait until 1966 for its first performance, on Austrian radio, and until the following year for its first staging, in the venue originally intended, the Salon de Bataille in Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace.
Bampton’s Oxford concert performance of this azione teatrale, in the University Church of St Mary, continued Gluck’s reforming tradition by replacing the Italian recitatives with an English narration between the arias, the result enthralling and coherent. Rosa French brought just the right edge to her voice, recounting vividly the gruesome Calydonian (off-stage) boar hunt, and conveying with not a little irony the concluding argument between Princess Atalanta and Prince Meleagro as to who should be accredited with the killing. The resonant acoustic of the church swallowed occasional words, but hardly detracted from her evocative narration. Her incidental local and contemporary references to the Ashmolean and lockdown brought a nice touch of familiarity.
The first bars of the overture, played by the joyously rhythmical ensemble CHROMA, set the tone well for the subsequent hunt, the contrasting slow middle movement with its languid semitones revealing the orchestra’s expansive expressive range. The merest hint of vibrato during the performance kept the playing translucent and delicate.
The four soloists only came together in the final “chorus”, when credit for saving the Calydonian community from the boar is finally given to their Emperor Francis. Samantha Louis-Jean’s Atalanta was suitably formidable, her consummate mastery of the coloratura passages capturing perfectly the heroine’s pugnacious, bullish nature with unfailing musical integrity. Her vivid evocation of the tumultuous river was well balanced by the calming oboes. Louis-Jean also appeared to hang on to every word of the narration. Harriet Eyley was regal as Meleagro. Her statuesque poise, enhanced appropriately by the suggestion of an imperial blue toga, added to the majesty of her rich, sonorous singing a notable dignity and authority, to which the oboe accompaniment of Emma Fielding contributed further grace. Asteria (Lucy Anderson) successfully conveyed a determined, indignant and very modern intensity; Climene (Lisa Howarth) soared dramatically over the orchestra when necessary, making musical sense even of less memorable phrases, while Helen Storey’s discreet bassoon was a subtle complement.
Robert Howarth directed from the harpsichord with clarity and restrained conviction, always undemonstrative and evidently allowing the music to speak for itself through his fine ensemble and soloists.
As for that Greek myth, Bampton’s interpretation of La corona showed just how contemporary the subject matter remains: this was a production for our age, paying due note to today’s issues of equality between the sexes and, not least, the importance of lauding a culture of “you” rather then “me”. Musically and emotionally, this was a wonderful performance to welcome us back to live concerts.