The serious business of bringing a fool back to life

Lisa Wilson and Nicholas Merryweather in the Marriage of Figaro, Bampton Classical Opera
Lisa Wilson and Nicholas Merryweather in the Marriage of Figaro, Bampton Classical Opera

TWENTY-FIVE years before Rossini penned an opera about an Italian Girl in Algiers, Cimarosa wrote one about an Italian Girl in London, which gets the first of two Buxton Festival outings on Monday in a Bampton Classical Opera staging.

She is disguised as a French waitress in Madama Brillante’s downmarket London hotel in which an Englishman, a Dutchman and an Italian are staying, each of who have an interest in her leading to complicated shenanigans.

Playing the Italian, Don Polidoro, a buffo role, is Sheffield-born baritone Nicholas Merryweather, who says: “He is constantly pursuing the character of Livia, the eponymous Italian Girl, although for some reason he thinks she is French.

“It’s the first time in a while I’ve played a buffo role, so I’m enjoying not taking the character too seriously, though of course he takes himself ever so seriously!”

He has a link with the now defunct South Yorkshire Opera in that his father, Michael, was SYO’s orchestra manager and bassoonist from the company’s beginnings in the 1980s.

“We lived in Beauchief and I attended Birkdale School, albeit only for a couple of terms before we moved to Torquay in Devon,” says the singer, describing his memories of SYO as “scant”.

“We left Sheffield when I was five, so although I was backstage on a number of occasions I’m not sure I ever watched a show. The closest I got was peeping through one of the doors into the Crucible auditorium during a performance.”

He got interested in singing through growing up in a musical family he says.

“My parents have always been involved in local music making [his mother was a music teacher] and in my teenage years I would go and watch dad playing in the orchestra for an opera company in Devon.

“Although I hadn’t started singing at the time, I was fascinated by opera.”

As part of a degree course in modern language at University College of London, he had to go abroad for a year and decided to spend it studying at the music college in Cologne.

He recalls: “I had a great time during that year as I didn’t have to do any theory classes and just sang all the time! I learnt a couple of great roles there, Papageno [Mozart’s Flute] and Belcore [Donizetti’s L’Elisir] and came back speaking fluent German, which has helped so much with Lieder singing.

“It was never my intention to rush into a singing course, so after graduating from UCL I took a couple of years out before applying for the opera course at the Guildhall School of Music.

I think there can be pressure on singers to be pushed into career, perhaps too early.”

Since leaving the Guildhall in 2007 he says he has found work almost full-time in opera, in 2008 joining the Glyndebourne Chorus and singing with it for a year doing both the festival and tour, an experience he rates highly as a major step on the career ladder.

“I learnt so much from observing the principals in rehearsal and performance, seeing what made them so successful and highly regarded. However, the biggest effect Glyndebourne had on me was to convince me I didn’t want to be in the chorus!

“So I started to audition elsewhere and spent a couple of summers at the Longborough Festival in Gloucestershire where I sang the title roles in The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni.”

He also began working with English Touring Opera and appeared with the company at the Lyceum on its last two visits to Sheffield. And there is Bampton Classical Opera in Oxfordshire, but first his occasional excursions into Lieder.

“While I was in Cologne I learnt Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe with its references to the city, its cathedral and the Rhine. To sing such great texts and music only a few hundred metres from these places was so inspiring I have tried to sing as much Lieder as possible since,” says the baritone.

Clearly a vocal talent was evident early because he made his operatic debut with Bampton Classical Opera – which specialises in successfully unearthing forgotten classical period operas, those written between 1750 and 1830 – as far back as 2000 and has sung regularly with them since.

In 2005 it was as Figaro in the ‘other’ Barber of Seville by Paisiello and, last year, the title role in a considerably more obscure Marriage of Figaro by Marcus Portugal.

So how is he finding Cimarosa’s L‘Italiana in Londra, which was actually seen at the 1989 Buxton Festival?

“The plot is tenuous in places and requires some suspension of belief but many better-known operas suffer from the same issue, so I suppose it isn’t too much of a problem.

“The music is really satisfying to sing and varied enough to keep an audience listening.

“Sometimes you do a rare opera and think ‘maybe this should have stayed undiscovered’, and other times you think ‘how did this go undiscovered for so long?’

“This one is in that category and definitely entertaining, but as there were so many Italian operas written around the same time [1778] they couldn’t all make it into wider public awareness.”

In fact, a number of Cimarosa’s 80-plus operas remained popular well into the 19th century, long after his death in 1801, and his Italian Girl in London was one of them.