This year is shaping up as a significant one for the Classical Opera Company.
Founded in 1997 by the conductor Ian Page, the company specialises in the music of Mozart and his contemporaries, performing with its own period-instrument orchestra.
Fresh from their exploration of Joseph Haydn’s operatic output, during a Haydn Week at Kings Place, COC now embarks on something of a reconstructed Mitridate, re di Ponto.
The opera, an astonishingly mature work by the 14-year old Mozart, is hardly unknown – The Royal Opera’s highly stylised production by Graham Vick has been revived a number of times – but what COC are bringing to it is a resurrection of seven numbers that were rejected by the time the work came to the stage in 1770.
I asked the company’s founder and artistic director Ian Page if the inclusion of so many missing arias is going to result in a particularly long evening. “Not really,” he told me, “as we’re cutting several of the other numbers and some of the recitative. In fact, we’re cutting one role completely, that of the second tenor, Marzio. The recitative is proving difficult to cut because the libretto is so dramatically strong but we will come in at under three hours.”
Mitridate is based on a play by the great French dramatist Jean Racine, giving this opera seria more of a dramatic edge than some of Mozart’s other early works (or indeed most other operas). Page will be working with the director Martin Lloyd Evans on the fully-staged production. “He’s someone I’ve wanted to work with for a long time,” he tells me, “we’re looking at a modern setting that explores the East West divide but will be non-specific. It will be a modern war zone, set in a cabinet room with computer screens. I think it’s an interesting way to go.”
He says that the contrast of a contemporary setting (lighting and set designs will be by Simon Corder) with the use of period instruments will create a more modern sound world, that the apparent stylistic clash actually makes for a greater connection. “Composers write for their own day,” he says, “and we need to find a topicality if it’s to burst with life and have something to say.”
Following a successful concert performance in 2004, the Classical Opera Company’s production of this revived version will be performed at Sadler’s Wells on 2 June, before going onto the Buxton Festival and a short tour. The cast will include Allison Bell, who gave fascinating performances in last year’s Peter Etvs premiere Love and Other Demons at Glyndebourne and as Pretty Polly in Music Theatre Wales’ Punch and Judy. She is joined by Royal Opera House Young Artist graduate Kishani Jayasinghe as Sifare and counter tenor Stephen Wallace as Farnace, with the renowned tenor Mark Le Brocq in the title role.
Beyond the Summer performances of Mitridate, COC is lining up one of its most exciting enterprises to date, with a Royal Opera collaboration due to take place in the Linbury Studio in November. I asked Page how this came about: “Elaine Padmore (Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House) had heard a CD we brought out a few years ago the A to Z of Mozart’s Music and, as some of our young singers who appeared on that have since gone on to appear at Covent Garden, she was already familiar with them. Anyway, she approached me about something she’d been wanting to do for a very long time and it turned out to be Artaxerxes.”
One tends to think of the three centuries between Purcell and Britten as an unremarkable period for British opera (if one disregards Handel, of course). One composer who was doing important work in the field during the 100 or so years after Dido and Aeneas, though, was Thomas Arne, who wrote “Rule Britannia” and his opera on Persian skulduggery based on Metastasio was one of the biggest hits of the age.
Page describes the opera as “stylistically fascinating, sitting somewhere between Handel and Mozart but perhaps closer to the latter. It was written only five years before Mozart’s first opera.”
It will be directed by Martin Duncan, whose recent productions include A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Pinocchio for Opera North. Talking to him as he was preparing for his production of Martinu’s Mirandolina at Garsington, I took the opportunity of asking him about Artaxerxes. He told me that he’s in the very early stages of researching and working with the designer but is delighted to be doing the work.
“I’d never heard it before and it really is a lovely piece,” he said, “so light and tuneful, in contrast to the rather dark subject matter, killing kings and so on. It’s actually a gem,” he enthuses, “without the da capo repetitions that are so challenging to a director for Handel. It’s very swift-moving and the music is just beautiful. I’m looking forward to it enormously.”
COC will be performing Arne’s Artaxerxes in the Linbury this autumn prior to a national tour and the production pre-empts any tercentenary celebrations planned in 2010, (the composer was born in 1710). The cast will include soprano Elizabeth Watts, the Australian mezzo Caitlin Hulcup, soprano Rebecca Bottone, tenor Andrew Staples and counter-tenor Christopher Ainslie in the title role. Ian Page will conduct the period-instrument orchestra.
Still further ahead, the Classical Opera Company will present another week-long celebration at Kings Place in December, this time for another composer with an anniversary this year: George Frederick Handel. It’s a busy year for the enterprising company and rich prospects for anyone interested in opera of the baroque and classical periods. To find out more about all these projects, visit their website at www.classicalopera.co.uk