Salieri takes centre stage

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The Independent Culture

Mention Salieri and it conjures up visions of the sinister old man in Amadeus, whose jealousy drives Mozart to an early grave. Actually Antonio Salieri deserves better than that: his operas are rarely performed, but there's a chance to catch two this weekend. Bampton Classical Opera mounts the UK stage premiere of Falstaff (after Shakespeare); and Richard Hickox will conduct Prima, la musica, pui le parole for the Barbican's Mostly Mozart festival. The latter is a one-act comedy on the subject of producing an opera, and was originally commissioned by Austria's Emperor Joseph II.

Salieri was the fifth son of a merchant, but his aptitude for the violin, harpsichord and at singing attracted the attention of the composer Florian Gassmann, who took him to Vienna at the age of 15, and effectively adopted him. He was Joseph II's favourite opera composer and became a protégé of Gluck, who encouraged him throughout his life.

Salieri wrote an opera for the opening of La Scala, Milan and succeeded to the directorship of the Vienna Court Opera, aged only 24. Later he taught Beethoven and Schubert.

Falstaff, or The Three Jokes (1799) is a comic treat. Jeremy Gray and Gilly French, Bampton's co-translators, have given Defrancheschi's natty libretto an updated comic twist, setting it in the Windsor Home Guard of the Forties, with shades of Dad's Army, Captain Mainwaring and (in the sleepy, reluctant Bardolph), Private Pike.

Falstaff is sung by Suffolk-born Mark Saberton, a rather Falstaffian figure himself, who trained at Glasgow's RSAMD and gained experience with the LSO Chorus. Before long he was covering Rigoletto for Diva Opera. He admires Salieri's Falstaff more and more: "He's certainly not a stupid old buffoon. He harks back to a different era, when he was socially acceptable and a 'gentleman' himself. He's convivial, and an irrepressible optimist. Even though he gets dumped in a basket and beaten up by an irate husband (Mark Wilde), he remains dignified and sees the humour of it all.

"He's definitely not one-dimensional, so I've had to find lots of different vocal colours for him. He's by turns affectionate, petulant, syrupy, confident, nervous: the voice has to suggest all these. There are some brilliant ensembles, a letter-writing scene that needs careful pacing, and a witty exchange in pidgin English with a supposed German girl, full of 'oohs' and 'aahs' - there's lots of mileage in the role for guttural noises. The two best arias are incredibly well written: some even claim that 'In the halls of Cupid's empire' is the finest depiction of the fat knight ever composed."

'Falstaff' is at The Deanery Garden, Bampton, Oxfordshire on 25 and 26 July, 7.45pm; (020-7963 1116; 'Prima la musica pui la parole' at the Barbican Hall, London EC2 26 July, 7.30: (0845 120 7550;