It’s safe to say that Salieri’s At the Venice Fair (La fiera di Venezia, 1772) isn’t part of the usual opera repertoire. In fact this new production by Bampton Classical Opera marks its UK premiere.
Staged in the stunning St John’s Smith Square church in south-west London, At the Venice Fair is performed in a new English-language translation of Boccherini’s Italian libretto by Gilly French and Jeremy Gray, who is also the director. It’s very cleverly done and works well. The result is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. There’s a light touch to the language that matches the music, which is truly beautiful.
The action has been updated to what appears to be the mid-20th century, based on props such as an old-fashioned telephone and camera, the costumes and large colour tourist photos of modern Venice. This allows for more contemporary language and references.
The opera opens in rambunctious fashion, set in a Venetian market square. The chorus sings enthusiastically about their wares and we’re introduced to most of the main characters. It’s all very lighthearted and good fun. But, of course, things are about to take a turn for the worse.
The opera’s humour arises from the various amorous entanglements of its main characters. Duke Ostrogoto is engaged to Marchioness Calloandra. However, he is determined to seduce the flirtatious Falsirena while he’s in Venice. She is happy to be seduced, much to the anger of her former lover, Belfusto.
The duke’s plans are thrown into disarray when Calloandra also turns up, determined to keep her man faithful. Much of the comedy comes from Ostrogoto’s attempts to keep the two women apart and their plots to reveal his duplicity, with both women resorting to a series of disguises to fool him.
The largely young cast performed admirably well. Some of the singing at the beginning of the first scene felt a bit hesitant, but the performers soon settled in and relaxed into their roles. Soprano Ellen Mawhinney as Falsirena particularly seemed to have fun with the part.
She’s a terrific comic actress, with a pair of lungs to match. There is a virtuosity to her singing and she brings a great physicality to the role. Currently in her first year at Royal Academy Opera, she is certainly someone to keep an eye on.
Soprano Sarah Chae makes for a very winning Calloandra. Her first aria is incredibly expressive, and she takes the opportunity to show off her excellent coloratura skills. Her singing displays clarity and agility.
For me, these two women were the stars of the show. But that’s not to say the other performers weren’t also impressive. Tenor Andrew Henley is a boisterous, blustering Ostrogoto, who manages to be appealing despite his duplicity. Singing beautifully of the problems of loving two women, you can’t help warming to him, even though his troubles are of his own making.
Aaron Kendall’s Belfusto runs a whole gamut of emotions, from murderous anger to adoring love. This young baritone sings beautifully. A highlight is his animated and fun ‘catalogue aria’, in which he relates the goings-on at the fair. It’s wonderfully sung and acted.
Thomas Blunt conducted the Chroma orchestra in a lively manner. The orchestra’s engaging, almost spirited account of the music is very much in keeping with the cheerfulness of the opera, especially its happy ending.
While little known today, At the Venice Fair was hugely popular during its composer’s lifetime. This new production demonstrates that it deserves to be much better known. You can find out more from Bampton Classical Opera.
The grand finale: the now happy couples celebrate at the end of Salieri’s At the Venice Fair in this new production from Bampton Classical Opera.