Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Trofonio’s Cave @ St John’s, Smith Square, London

15 September 2015

Peter Shaffer’s play and subsequent film Amadeus may have done Salieri a great disservice by portraying him as a mediocre talent and jealous murderer. At the same time, however, it helped to raise the composer’s profile, even if the subsequent revival of interest in his operas may be more attributable to a far wider movement that has also re-evaluated those of Vivaldi and Handel.

In 2003 Bampton Classical Opera produced Salieri’s Falstaff, and since July 2015 it has been touring La grotta di Trofonio (performed here in English as Trofonio’s Cave) for what are almost certainly the opera’s first ever appearances in the UK. With libretto by Giambattista Casti, it tells the story of two sisters – the straight-laced, philosophical Ofelia and the feisty, frivolous Dori – who plan to marry. Their prospective husbands, Artemidoro and Plistene respectively, are both perfect matches for the women in terms of their interests and demeanour, but things go awry when each encounters the magician Trofonio. He possesses a cave that alters the personality of anyone who enters it, so that Artemidoro becomes randy and carefree to the consternation of Ofelia, and Plistene becomes far too boring for Dori. Their former personalities are then restored but the shenanigans start again when the women enter the cave, with the scenario only being happily resolved when all four have been returned to their original states at the end.

This was the first Salieri opera that I or (judging by a straw poll conducted at the pre-concert talk) any other audience member had ever seen live. I was expecting something that, although undoubtedly a cut above the vast majority of operas that were churned out in the latter half of the eighteenth century, still fell short of Mozart’s classics from the period. In the event, however, I was bowled over by just how strong the music was and how similar it sounded to many other works. Since La grotta di Trofonio premiered in 1785 before Le nozze di Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787) and Così fan tutte (1790) it was this work that influenced those and not the other way around. Upon listening to the piece, it at least came as no surprise that it was Salieri, who counted Schubert, Beethoven and Liszt among his pupils, and not Mozart who was judged in Vienna at the time as being preeminent in opera.

The Overture highlights the darker side of Trofonio’s character by beginning in C minor before suggesting his playfulness by adopting a Haydnesque allegro. Taking into account the character of the magician alongside the music used to portray him, he feels like a cross between the Commendatore, Don Alfonso and Dulcamara, and some of his recitative could have come straight from Don Giovanni (or rather vice versa!). Certain ideas also seem to predate those to be found in works that came far later. For example, a song in which Dori and Plistene actually keep forgetting what comes next in it anticipates the antics of Ariadne auf Naxos, while a trio in which the men keep singing about going without actually leaving feels similar to ‘When the foeman bares his steel’ in The Pirates of Penzance.

This performance at St John’s, Smith Square was the final one in Bampton Classical Opera’s tour of the work that began in July. It was staged simply but effectively with the drama being placed broadly at the start of the twentieth century, a bookcase complete with ionic columns dominating the sisters’ home. Such safe surroundings, however, were swept aside as soon as Trofonio appeared, with the magician being portrayed as Doctor Who complete with sonic screwdriver, and his cave becoming the Tardis. The performance was in English with no surtitles, and although Gilly French and Jeremy Gray’s translation contained modern references (to electricity) and phrases (such as “It’s good to talk”) overall it felt straight forward and accessible rather than annoyingly anachronistic.

The orchestra, under the baton of Paul Wingfield, produced a beautiful and precise sound while the parts of the sisters’ father Aristone, Plistine, Artemidoro, Dori and Ofelia were ably taken by James Harrison, Nicholas Merryweather, Christopher Turner, Aoife O’Sullivan and Catherine Backhouse respectively. Backhouse was replacing Anna Starushkevych who had performed the role elsewhere, and although she sang from a music stand while Marieke Bernard-Berkel acted the part, this did not mar the experience. The highest accolades, however, go to Matthew Stiff as Trofonio who asserted his rich bass voice while entering the Tardis through one door as Tom Baker and exiting it via another as Jon Pertwee.

Given the similarity of the plots, it is plausible that Mozart was determined to ensure that Così fan tutte specifically outshone La grotta di Trofonio. If so, da Ponte may well have been happy to support him in this aim since, although he had collaborated with Salieri, their relationship had frequently been stormy and he had originally written the Così libretto for the composer. It certainly seems likely that Mozart gave La grotta di Trofonio the utmost respect, and I suspect that the reason the opera (like Salieri’s others) ultimately faded into obscurity while Mozart’s went on to flourish had less to do with the music than the plot.

In Così fan tutte the men are set a challenge that they make a conscious decision to undertake, even though they know the dangers, and by the end everyone has changed in terms of learning something about themselves and the world. In La grotta di Trofonio the quartet of lovers seem more passive, with each showing far less resistance or understanding of the risks as they are invited into the cave. Similarly, when the two women declare at the end that they saw very different things inside the cave it is questionable whether they are demonstrating any real transformation in character or simply reasserting their original ones. Were I to watch the opera several times, I might well see more in the characters, but still I suspect that there was too little in them and the plot to sustain interest time and again.

This, however, is simply an hypothesis as to why La grotta di Trofonio fell out of favour in the long-term for it enjoyed immense success in the decades that followed its premiere, and the piece should in no way seem weak to us today. Indeed, I felt I had experienced the brilliance of Mozart only with added freshness since I had never heard the music before. This was an evening that almost left one wanting to devote the rest of one’s life to studying the operas of Salieri!

buy Matthew Stiff MP3s or CDs
Spotify Matthew Stiff on Spotify

More on Matthew Stiff
Trofonio’s Cave @ St John’s, Smith Square, London