Oxford reviews tend to fall into two categories – those that attempt genuine critical appraisal, and those commissioned from friends or spouses or family members who work for student publications: these tend not to be critical at all, but are part of the publicity of the show. Of course, the latter are not worthy of your time.
In order to prove, then, that this is not an exercise in back-scratching, I begin with the negatives. At certain points, injudicious glissando jarred with the style of the music; very occasionally, the singing felt disconcertingly unconnected to the orchestra; and, as with all student productions seen by this reviewer, the acting was of variable quality, with touches of sensitivity counteracted by awkwardness elsewhere: perhaps some finer points were left under-rehearsed. (But then this was the opening night.)
The triviality of these cavils may already have induced some suspicion of my position. But now I have done my duty, I can reveal how much I enjoyed myself. My prevailing impression was of a show professionally produced and executed with acuity. Nor was the task straightforward. The show is a curious hybrid of play and opera: Purcell’s music was originally intended as incidental. The libretto (if that is the right term here) was provided by Leo Mercer, and was commissioned for this production. While never really sparkling, it was always highly competent, capably meeting the demands of the score: where pathos or levity was required, the libretto gamely rose to the task. The conceit was strong – the story of the opera provides an opportunity for Delphine to escape the mundanity of her everyday life (one identifies): we accompany her on her fictional voyage through Ancient Rome. In the final scene we see the effect that the story has on her.
Jasmine White was convincing as the nerdy Delphine, and Danny Scarponi brought a not unwonted Gallic swagger to the role of Dioclesian. The supporting cast was generally strong, with Raphaël Millière’s mellifluous bass worthy of particular praise. The orchestra, again, was generally excellent, seldom missing a note under the magisterial baton of Matthew F. Reese.
Special praise must be reserved for the director, Dionysios Kyropoulos, who injected considerable flamboyance into what might easily have been a static, drab production – opera of this period is tricky: its fondness for long arias sets a considerable challenge for any director. The movement, the set, the costumes: all was efficient without ever trespassing into the officiousness which lamentably characterises the majority of modern opera, student and professional. The slick ideas with which the production teemed seldom obscured the action or music, and often enhanced it. Quite an accolade.
So, despite some reservations, this critic was impressed. A difficult task – ambitiously assailed – efficiently executed.