Opera + Classical Music Reviews

At the Venice Fair review – Salieri’s commedia per musica receives its UK premiere from Bampton Classical Opera

13 September 2023

One of the most popular operas of the 1770s comes to St John’s, Smith Square. 

At the Venice Fair

At the Venice Fair performed at Bampton (Photo: Anthony Hall)

Although Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, and subsequent film directed by Miloš Forman, helped to raise the overall profile of Antonio Salieri, overall they were mixed blessings for the composer. Despite Shaffer always being clear that he was presenting a virtual fiction, the popular perception of Salieri as a mediocre talent remains, and there are simply not enough performances of his works to overturn it. One can hope that, with 2025 marking the bicentenary of his death, many companies will present his compositions and allow for this image to be revised, but there is no guarantee that they will. With all festivals having to be risk averse in the wake of the pandemic, meaning they have less scope to programme rarities whose selling power is unproven, it is uncertain that we will see many of his operas. Even if there are to be an abundance, it should not be forgotten that one company has been presenting his works in the UK far more than any other over the past 20 years. This is Bampton Classical Opera, which specialises in bringing little known 18th century works to public attention, and which performed Falstaff (1799) in 2003, La grotta di Trofonio (1785) in 2015 and La scuola de’ gelosi (1778) in 2017. 

Bampton is currently celebrating its 30th season with Haydn’s Lo speziale (1768) and Salieri’s La fiera di Venezia (1772). When it first presented the latter, performing it in English as At the Venice Fair, in Oxfordshire in July, it constituted the UK premiere of the opera, because, while many works by the composer did make it across the English Channel in the 18th century, this was not one of them. The performance at St John’s, Smith Square constituted the last of three, following appearances in Bampton and Westonbirt, and highlighted both the quality of the opera and the company’s own dynamic approach to presenting such works. 

Salieri wrote the three act opera buffa, which he described as a commedia per musica, at the age of 21. The original Italian libretto was by Giovanni Gastone Boccherini, brother of the composer Luigi, and, following a successful premiere at Vienna’s Burgtheater in 1772, it went on to enjoy around 30 productions across Europe during his lifetime. Set in Venice during its Festa della Sensa, it considers three couples who all come from different social strata, and the confusion that reigns as various attempts at two timing see the classes become mixed up. Duke Ostrogoto from Vicenza is engaged to the Marchioness Calloandra, but is also having an affair with one Falsirena. The latter is, in turn, stringing Ostrogoto along because she is in love with Belfusto, who she pretends is her cousin whenever the Duke is present. There are also the working class characters of Cristallina, a lace seller, and Rasoio, the innkeeper of the Black Ox, while the one character who is not part of any couple is Falsirena’s father, the charlatan Grifagno. The opera has a happy ending when the couples from the ‘correct’ social class, and hence order, are restored. 

The high quality score supports the entertaining subject matter well, with the Overture conjuring up an image of a busy Venetian piazza full of merchants peddling their wares. The close of Act II features a masked ball, the music of which Mozart may well have pocketed in his mind, and used 15 years later as inspiration for the party that ends Act I of Don Giovanni. This is why our knowledge of Mozart’s operas remains incomplete if we do not know Salieri’s as well. Without awareness of them we are restricted to seeing how Mozart developed his own writing from one opera to the next, without understanding the influence of others upon it. Certainly, Mozart wrote a miniature set of keyboard variations on the minuet ‘Mio caro Adone’ that appears in this ball scene, which Amadeus acknowledges, but distorts the fact that it shows just how highly he regarded Salieri’s music.

“…the popular perception of Salieri as a mediocre talent remains, and there are simply not enough performances of his works to overturn it”

At the Venice Fair

Ellen Mawhinney & Andrew Henley (Photo: Anthony Hall)

The masked ball also has a touch of Act IV of Le nozze di Figaro about it as it involves a character dressing up to look like another. The Marchioness also restores her relationship with the Duke in a way that does not feel dissimilar to the Countess forgiving her husband in Figaro. Rasoio sings an aria in which he tries to warn the Duke that a supposed German Baroness is actually Falsirena, but, because the Marchioness keeps moving into earshot every time he is about to say her name, he is always forced to utter things like ‘fa-so-la-ti-do’ instead. This does not feel dissimilar to the Finale to Act I of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado when Katisha proclaims a series of words that rhyme with ‘Mikado’, but every time she tries to say the name itself she is drowned out by the chorus.

Although the production was lo-tech, which is unsurprising as it had to be presented in three disparate locations, it is remarkable just how effective Jeremy Gray’s staging was. With the set presenting a series of painted and postcard images of Venice, along with mooring poles and the bows of gondolas, a strong impression of the hustle and bustle of the city was instantly generated. The audience entered to see signs reading ‘mercato chiuso’, but as soon as the Overture began the various stall holders turned these around and in next to no time the fair felt in full flow. The production was thus dynamic from the start, and at no point did the energy ever really drop. The dancing, courtesy of Karen Halliday, was carried off well by the seven soloists and four chorus members, and there was a fair amount of it at the masked ball, probably because the librettist Boccherini was primarily a choreographer and dancer.

Gray and Gilly French’s English translation was excellent, with lines including the brilliantly slick ‘What a daughter. She’s defending him as truly as she oughta’. It included topical references so that the Venice fair was described as receiving ‘Downton tourists’, because the village of Bampton sees many as it was a filming location for the series. There was always something in which to take an interest as lines contained references from different periods of time. For example, when they were prisoners, Belfusto and Grifagno sang the 1940s phrase, ‘There are good times just around the corner’, which Noel Coward subsequently parodied in a song by substituting the word ‘good’ for ‘bad’.    

Thomas Blunt’s conducting of the CHROMA ensemble was superb, while there were a host of outstanding performances from the cast, which included Aaron Kendall as Belfusto, Philip Sheffield as Grifagno, Guy Beynon as Rasoio and Iúnó Connolly as Cristallina. Andrew Henley was a particularly fine Duke Ostrogoto, as he asserted his strong tenor to splendid effect. Sarah Chae as the Marchioness revealed an extremely warm and nuanced voice, while Ellen Mawhinney combined a compelling soprano with the right sense of mischievousness, so that it felt like a natural extension of Falsirena’s character for her to assume various disguises. Following such a memorable evening, the only question that remains is which Salieri opera will Bampton decide to present for his big year in 2025?  

• A 2019 recording of Salieri’s La fiera di Venezia from L’arte del mondo, conducted by Werner Ehrhardt, is available on the Deutsche Harmonia Mundi label.  

• For details of all Bampton Classical Opera’s future events visit its website.    

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At the Venice Fair review – Salieri’s commedia per musica receives its UK premiere from Bampton Classical Opera