Mozart/Oliver: The Goose of Cairo

Mozart/Oliver: The Goose of Cairo
London Mozart Players
St John’s Smith Square. 14 April 2016

Billed as a ‘completion’ of Mozart’s unfinished opera, L’oca del Caïro, Stephen Oliver’s approach to the task of making Mozart’s remnants performable is more of a complete re-working of the original. The resulting two-act, 90 minute opera is half Mozart, half Oliver. It blends and merges the two distinct musical style in a compelling manner. Composed for, and first performed (fully staged) at the Musica bel Chiostro festival in Batignano in 1991 (a year before Stephen Oliver’s untimely death), this concert performance was its British premiere, and its first performance in a new English translation.

The story of how this comic opera came to be discarded by Mozart reveals something of the tension between composers and librettist. Varesco was librettist for I re pastore and Idomeneo, the latter already causing ructions when Mozart changed the text to suit his music. This conflict was carried on with some gusto into the early stages of L’oca del Caïro. Alongside a very silly plot, which ended with a sort of Trojan Goose scene, Varesco’s other oddities included the two leading female singers only appearing right at the end, and suggesting that two key cavatinas should be sung to the same music. Eventually Mozart gave up, and put the score away, unfinished.

It has been staged, incomplete, several times and there are also several completions, usually drawing on music from other Mozart works. Stephen Oliver took the eight remaining parts of Mozart’s music (3 arias, 2 duets, a recitative scena, a quartet and the finale) and placed them at intervals over the two acts, ending both acts with a Mozart multi-voice finale. He also amended the story-line, although I wasn’t convinced that the story ended up making much more sense than the original, although it did retain the enlightenment concept of belittling the aristocracy and their attitude towards servants and women. The music segues cleverly between Mozart and Oliver, with no attempt at pastiche. Stephen Oliver’s very contemporary music is both distinctive and approachable. Rather like conventions in architectural conservation, the distinctions between old and new are clear.

The stage layout for this performance was slightly odd, with the London Mozart Players on the left of the stage and the row of eight music stands for the singers to the left. The far two positions were for the two young women who had been locked up in a tower by the evil Don, a collector of rarities – the tower represented by a 10” high box. The singers came on from the left and right of the stage to their positions, the face of the one who was using a tablet rather than a paper score lit by a rather eerie glow. Although the conductor seemed to be within side-glance of the singers, a second conductor was positioned beneath the stage to the left, with the difficult task of not only matching the beat with his right hand, but giving every vocal entry with his left. Had he been positioned in the middle of the front row, rather than to the far side, the frequent side glances of the singers would have been avoided. Incidentally, despite his complex task, this assistant conductor was not named in the programme and, even more unforgivably, his existence was not even acknowledged by the main conductor during the final applause. For that curious breach of concert etiquette, I will name and commend the assistant conductor, Chris Hopkins, but not the main conductor.

Musical the only other oddity was at the start of the second act when Mozart’s one remaining bit of recitative was performed with a heavy-handed grand piano continuo – about as far from ‘authentic’ as you can get, even for such a modern instrument orchestra. Otherwise the 22 players were very much at home in Stephen Oliver’s music and only marginally less so in Mozart’s. There was some excellent clarinet playing from Anna Hashimoto, with several lengthy and exposed solo passages. Violinist Lesley Hatfield and the horn players Caroline O’Connell and Martin Grainger also had a lot to do.

The eight singers (Quirijn de Lang, Fflur Wyn, Soraya Mafi, Ellie Laugharne, Robert Murray, Christopher Diffey, Alexander Robin Baker and Victoria Simmonds) were all vocally excellent, with most demonstrating commendable acting skills within the confines of a concert performance. Notable amongst the latter was Ellie Laugharne, together with Quirijn de Lang, Soraya Mafi, Robert Murray, Christopher Diffey, and Alexander Robin Baker. There were only a few props, generally things handed from one singer to another and not always visible to the audience. The only other stage addition was a enormous golden goose floating above the stage, made for the occasion by Cat Fuller (pictured).

As well as the interest of a first performance, this was also homage to the composer Stephen Oliver. Composer Jonathan Dove, a friend of Oliver, introduced the music and the performance, making a brave attempt at explaining the plot. The detailed programme also included a memoir of Stephen by Jane Glover. For those who came to hear Mozart, I hope that this was a worthwhile introduction to contemporary opera – as thriving a genre as it was in Mozart’s time.

Photos by Jenny Brady

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