Opera + Classical Music Reviews

La corona @ St John’s, Smith Square, London

18 May 2021

Live audiences may be back, but those who missed out on Bampton Classical Opera’s latest performance can still catch it online. 

St John's Smith Square

St John’s Smith Square (Photo: St John’s Smith Square)

While we can be thankful it is possible to attend a concert in person once more, the plethora of online performances that appeared during lockdown had one advantage in that they could be enjoyed by anyone anywhere in the world. Recognising this, Bampton Classical Opera has ensured that its performance of Gluck’s La corona at St John’s, Smith Square on 18 May (which was repeated four days later at University Church, Oxford) can be experienced by anyone by making it available online until 25 June.

The company focuses on lesser known works from the eighteenth century, and over the years has presented three operas by Salieri (Falstaff, La grotta di Trofonio and La scuola de’ gelosi). This year, however, following the disruption of its 2020 plans by COVID-19, it is focusing on Gluck with Paride ed Elena also appearing later in the year. 

His one act ‘Azione teatrale’, La corona, was written in 1765 and proves to be an absolute gem. It was written for four Viennese Archduchesses, daughters of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and the Empress Maria Theresa. Gluck had already composed Il parnaso confuso, which Bampton performed in 2014, for these young singers and both works set words by Pietro Metastasio. Each was intended for imperial family celebrations at the Habsburg court theatre, although La corona was abandoned due to the Emperor’s sudden death and did not enjoy its first performance until 1987, at the City of London Festival on the bicentenary of the composer’s death.

The opera, which derives from a story in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, sees Meleagro, Prince of Calydonia, gather a troupe of brave heroes to hunt and slaughter the ferocious wild boar, sent by the goddess Diana to devastate his realm. However, the opera is concerned not with masculine prowess and bravery but with the role and ambitions of women. Atalanta, Climene and Asteria debate whether to join the chase, angry that only men can have the honour of gaining the crown of victory. When they consult Meleagro he says the task is men’s work and warns that they will endanger themselves. Nevertheless, the women cannot hold back, with the consequence that Meleagro is able to kill the boar, but only after Atalanta has wounded it. With each recognising the contribution of the other, both prove reticent to accept the crown, with them ultimately deciding to offer it instead to the real Emperor Francis I.

La corona may be a little known work, but in comprising one act and lasting one hour it feels like the perfect small scale opera. It presents something of a paradox in that it at least allows for the ‘ridiculous and wearisome’ disfigurements that Gluck felt opera singers were inclined to introduce, and which he ensured would be absent from Orfeo ed Euridice written three years earlier. At the same time, however, the arias are, in essence, fairly simple. Each comprises two verses and, though repetition is a key feature, they generally work to the formula of seeing one principal change in mood or tone as they move from the first to the second of these. This proves delightful because it sees the element that underlies most arias from the era distilled down to its most basic, and hence purest, form. Much of the brilliant shape that the piece takes may be attributable to the circumstances under which it was created. In writing for the four Archduchesses, who were all sopranos and young amateurs, Gluck was providing music that could be delivered at a ‘basic’ level, and yet which offered the scope to be executed at a more ‘advanced’ one. 

“…the plethora of online performances that appeared during lockdown had one advantage in that they could be enjoyed by anyone anywhere in the world”

In the hands of the four professional soloists at St John’s, Smith Square, the arias rose to exceptional heights as the smooth, radiant and seemingly effortless voice of Samantha Louis-Jean as Atalanta worked well with Harriet Eyley’s exciting yet brilliantly controlled sound as Meleagro. Certainly, their duet ‘Deh l’accetta, ah giunga alfine quella fronte a circondar!’ proved to be a particular highlight of the evening. Lucy Anderson also gave a tremendous performance of Asteria’s ‘Anch’io mi sento in petto’ in which one truly felt her fortitude and determination to fight like the men, while Lisa Howarth’s rendition of Climene’s ‘Benché inesperto all’armi’ was similarly sublime. Robert Howarth conducted the CHROMA Ensemble, and the same point regarding the simplicity yet perfection of the arias could be made about the orchestral writing as the Overture comprised three movements of contrasting moods, and proved exceptionally well balanced. 

Bampton Classical Opera performs its fully staged operas in English, with contemporary references often written in to introduce an extra layer of freshness. This concert performance of La corona was sung in the original Italian, but included an English narration, expertly delivered by Rosa French. In the absence of costumes and scenery this helped to conjure up a sense of time and place by asking us to imagine a Claude Lorrain painting in the National Gallery. Lockdown may have been mentioned once, but this was ultimately a performance where we could forget our current troubles and be transported to an idyllic setting with exquisite music. 

Bampton Classical Opera’s performance of La corona at St John’s, Smith Square on 18 May is available to watch online until 25 June at a price of £8. Each booking includes a link to the programme notes, which include a full libretto and translation. For tickets click here. 

Bampton Classical Opera will present Gluck’s Paride ed Elena, fully staged and sung in English, in the garden of Bampton Deanery on 23 and 24 July, at Westonbirt School on 30 August and at St John’s, Smith Square on 24 September. For tickets for these events click here.

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La corona @ St John’s, Smith Square, London