A more literal translation of Stephen Storace’s Gli sposi malcontenti, which premiered at Vienna’s Burgtheater on 1 June 1785, would be The Discontented Newly-weds. However, Bampton Classical Opera, which in its twenty-six year history has performed many little known eighteenth century operas (including three by Salieri), felt that the title Bride and Gloom equally captured the spirit of the piece and also seemed more pithy. Today Stephen Storace may be less well known than his sister Nancy, the soprano for whom both Salieri and Mozart wrote several roles, but he was a highly accomplished composer with an international outlook, having been born in London to an Italian father and travelled extensively.
Almost certainly through the influence that Nancy exercised at the Viennese Court, Stephen was commissioned at the age of twenty-three to write the opera by Emperor Joseph II himself. In the event, the premiere was not a success, with Nancy breaking down several times in the first act, and it has been suggested that the role she was playing of a woman in an unhappy marriage was too close to her own situation at the time. However, with the Emperor not being present that night, and the overall cast being so illustrious, it survived this mishap and over time enjoyed reasonable success, including revivals in Prague and Leipzig in 1786 and Dresden in 1787. The first modern revival, however, only came in 1985 when Opera Viva performed it at the New Theatre, King’s College London, utilising an English translation by Brian Trowell, which this performance by Bampton also used.
The plot, with libretto by Gaetano Brunati, sees Eginia married to the morose Casimiro. She actually loved Artidoro, but gave him up to marry the man that her father insisted upon. To make matters worse for her, Artidoro has moved on to a relationship with Casimiro’s sister Enrichetta, who in turn is also admired by Valente, an intellectual with many degrees but absolutely no charm. In an effort to get rid of his ‘rival’, Valente convinces Casimiro and his father Rosmondo that Artidoro and Eginia are still in love. His hope is that Enrichetta will turn her attentions to him if Artidoro is banned from the house, but the consequence is that the finale to Act I sees accusations fly and confusion reign.
Things do resolve themselves in Act II, following the concocting of plans, the sending of anonymous letters and a night-time scene in a garden. In the end Enrichetta is allowed to marry Artidoro, and Eginia chooses not to run away from Casimiro, accepting that she made a commitment to him and discovering that he is perhaps not so dull after all!
There are two scenes that, in particular, feel highly ‘reminiscent’ of Le nozze di Figaro. The first is the scene at the end, which takes place in a garden at night, where the darkness allows for a host of mistaken identities and general confusion. The other sees Artidoro hiding first behind the sofa and then upon it as Rosmondo himself hides behind it, just as happens with Cherubino and the Count. Remarkably, this opera was produced a year before Figaro, although it seems less likely that Mozart and Da Ponte copied directly from it than that Storace and Brunati were as acquainted with the Beaumarchais play as they were. However, given that Salieri had a similar garden scene in La scuola de’ gelosi in 1778, it seems that all of these composers and librettists were learning from each other and drawing on standard techniques, which is why we are all the poorer if we know Mozart’s operas but not those of his contemporaries. Similarly, we can see the clever ‘wheeler-dealing’ servant Bettina in Bride and Gloom as a forerunner to Despina, although even here Mozart had included an equally clever maid Ninetta in La finta semplice, which he had written in 1768 when we was twelve.
Musically, the piece is highly accomplished. The Overture may sound more reminiscent of Haydn, but much of the recitative is practically indistinguishable from Mozart, while Eginia’s first aria feels like an ‘equivalent’ to the Countess’ ‘Porgi, amor’ as both constitute a lament on their current marital situation. However, it seems that Storace divided up the verses of the aria with recitative, which is a technique Gluck employed, but Mozart avoided. Overall, the opera comes across as being as ninety per cent as good as Mozart, and while some might see that as an overly generous assessment, to me that final ten per cent is the difference between a work that is now performed somewhere in the world every night of the year, and one that has enjoyed just two UK outings in modern times. As Bampton Classical Opera has shown, however, the sheer disparity between the amount to which Bride and Gloom and Figaro are performed is totally unwarranted, and we can certainly hope that it does enjoy many more airings in the future.
Bampton’s production enjoyed performances in Bampton and Westonbirt in July and August, with this presentation at St John’s, Smith Square constituting the final one in its current run. Opera Today described the scenery for the Opera Viva production in 1985 as ‘courtesy of Covent Garden refuse skips’, but that is something that could certainly not be said about Bampton’s set, as the stage was dominated by two giant slices of wedding cake, one standing upright and the other on its side. They were clearly very well built, with one containing a door from which props could be produced and the other a window through which Valente frequently appeared. Smoke also appeared from them during the finale to Act I, which has the same surreal quality to that to be found in Il barbiere di Siviglia. There were also a number of subtle touches in Jeremy Gray’s staging, including Bettina giving a strong signal to Valente at the end that they were not going to get together, when we as the audience were already anticipating that they might.
Anthony Kraus’ conducting of the CHROMA Ensemble was superb, while all of the parts were cast from strength. Particularly impressive was Arthur Bruce’s baritone as Artidoro, but just as accomplished were Robert Davies as Rosmondo, Gavan Ring as Casimiro, Jenny Stafford as Eginia, Aoife O’Sullivan as Enrichetta, Adam Tunnicliffe as Valente and Caroline Kennedy as Bettina. Bampton Classical Opera is to be congratulated for bringing yet another little known, but highly worthwhile, eighteenth century opera to public attention, and I cannot wait to see what it has in store for next year.
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