Their conversation is become just like the Spa-water they drink, which has all the pertness and flatulency of champagne, without its spirit or flavour.
Careless, R.B. Sheridan, A School for Scandal
Buxton, a spa town nestling between the High Peak and Bakewell, plays host to an annual opera festival in what the English laughingly describe as summer.
In its way this festival has reinvigorated a lovely the town which had faded from its heyday. The opera house is a perfect gem and the Pavilion Arts Centre is a great addition to the performance space. Though the weather was at its unkindest – it rained every day – the wet days and damp nights didn’t cloud the stunning countryside. Nor did they shroud the festival in dull mists.
All the productions were bold…a boldness better advised on some occasions than others.
We began on Sunday in the Church of St John which hosted a Eucharist featuring the festival chorus and soloists and full orchestra singing F.J. Haydn’s Paukenmesse. It was wonderful to hear this mass sung with full orchestra and its magic moments rose over an uneven performance. There was a particularly poor patch when an uncertain cellist was chased by an over-stretched baritone through the dark pass of the glorious obbligato “qui tollis peccata mundi”. In fact, as we got there early, we also were able to sit through the full rehearsal that was musically more satisfying. It must be said the congregation were very welcoming. The sermon wasn’t too long. Haydn’s music survived this encounter with Anglican liturgy although the Anglican Communion Service is some distance from the ritual of the Mass that Papa Haydn knew and for which he lovingly composed some of his greatest music.
Buxton opera festival specialises in earlier opera. These require smaller orchestral forces. They can often shine even with smaller voices. Even working with such limitations these early operas still pack a dramatic punch. For modern audiences used to naturalism in drama the static nature of the recitative and aria – the latter often sung ‘da capo’ (literally, from the top) when the singer repeats the principal melody with flamboyant decorations to rhythm and notation – are dramatically problematic. They can leave a singer uselessly stranded in one place on stage for extended periods. Contemporary directors have chosen tackle this by encouraging singers to stride about the stage during arias or to intrude some background stage business into the action. In moderation this works well. Unrestrained it’s distracting.
It proved to be a temptation Donald Maxwell couldn’t resist in Telemann’s ‘Pimpinone’ which was performed in Sunday afternoon in the Pavilion Theatre. There are only two singers in this delightful chamber entertainment from 1725. Donald Maxwell sung the title role and Rebecca Rudge sang Vespetta – a servant girl determined to marry well. Their performances had plenty of brio though Donald Maxwell’s teetered towards the camp pastiche of maybe a Koko or a Lord Chancellor in Gilbert and Sullivan. Even so in this uneven production it was possible to see how far sung drama had already travelled since its birth in Venice at the turn of the seventeenth century. The Northern Chamber Ensemble played very, very well. The music justified this unlikely revival.
Nor was Maxwell alone in indulging this appetite for gratuitous stage business. Cimarosa’s ‘The Italian Girl in London’ is a comic cappuccino frothily reset in a slightly down market London hotel. The garish set shouted Fawlty Towers and Caryl Hughes played Madame Brillante as a coloratura Sybil complete with hairnet. She sang with the shrill sang-froid of a seaside landlady. In the second Act this characterization was less helpful. But in Act I the setting worked convincingly. This was musically the lighter and the busy production assisted the music in every way. The music in Act II resonated better with character and Cimarosa’s Intermezzo proved greater than the sum of the production’s parts. That said the singers gave engaging performances and in particular Kim Sheehan and Nicholas Merryweather turned in delightful performances as Livia and Don Polidoro. The singing was good and the finale of Act I took on a Rossini-like improbability. The overcrowded set, the non-singing maid and the routines with tea and baggage became over extended jokes that at times left the production marooned in its own shallows.
Tuesday night was Mignon by Amboise Thomas. This is a strange story told in musical language that’s a mixture of light and dark and the French grand opera style and the Italian ‘bel canto’. Mignon is a stolen child who ekes out an abused life as a circus performer.
At the beginning of the opera she’s rescued by Wilhelm. The action brings Wilhelm, a young man seeking adventure, together with Lothario, Mignon’s father, who’s spent his life searching for his daughter and doesn’t realise he’s found her with Mignon herself. Mignon’s strange vulnerability therefore speaks to both of them.
They stumble across Mignon in the train of an itinerant troop of provincial players amongst whom the beautiful Philine burns bright as a super nova. The story affords every opportunity to explore a range of character and emotion. The music is wonderfully lush and was lushly played. The melodies are brazen.
This production made the most of the stage but once again tried to fit one trick too many into the limited space that’s the stage of Buxton Opera House. At times the cast awkwardly squeezed by each other. Nevertheless there were transcending moments not least Philine (Gillian Keith) sitting on a quarter moon suspended over the stage and singing her heart out. It was daring and dazzling in equal measure – one suspects for Ms Keith as much as for her breathless audience. Ryan Macpherson (Wilhelm) and Wendy Dawn Thompson (Mignon) were convincing and adept. Russell Smythe’s Lothario was hampered by some directorial banalities which made less sense of his part than Thomas intended. For most of the opera he was on stage holding a suitcase whose contents eventually are revealed to include his stolen daughter’s doll. In the way of portmanteau cliché both doll and father are restored to the daughter in the final act which musically has distant echoes of Violetta’s end in La Traviata. Unlike Verdi’s heroine Mignon is reunited with her father and with Wilhelm to live happily ever after…a not altogether convincing ending to this troubled tale of loss and love. It was a good night and at its best the good parts were astounding. They more than compensated for the odd silliness.
Sadly the same kind judgment cannot be handed down on the production of ‘Saul’ on the Thursday. Handel wrote some of the greatest music of any century and if the German genius is a master of musical forms Saul is one of his masterpieces. It deserves more frequent performance than it’s enjoyed. But it’s an oratorio. Oratorio isn’t opera and this obviously hampers any production in a theatre.
Semi-staged works in costume were and can be successful. In the eighteenth century it was common for eager audiences to follow the action of the oratorio by reading the libretti which were replete with dramatic directions for chorus and soloists – the latter often appearing in costume. Thus, semi-staged oratorio can work well but it takes an accomplished director to dress oratorio in the haute-couture of grand opera.
Without any inhibition Olivia Fuchs set about her task with the chutzpah of a kamikaze pilot. She reset the drama in an amorphous USA at the end of the Second World War. Saul is the president; David is the pilot of the Enola Gay. If ever there was an example of vaulting directorial ambition over-leaping itself this was it. Buxton’s stage creaked under the weight of the productions multiple monstrosities. It might have been a mercy for all involved if it had broken under the strain.
Instead audience, cast and chorus had to endure many pointless indignities before the night was done. It’s difficult to select a few: the scene where David sang “your words oh king” with members of the chorus notionally tortured in a chair by rampant policemen was particularly crass. The chorus as nightmare line-dancers in scarlet cowboy boots and tasselled tops was another low point; the toy Enola Gay plane dropping its atom bomb backdrop yet another. The chorus carrying a large Japanese flag only to crawl out from under it was Busby Berkeley meets Stanley Baxter; making the chorus kneel and stand and wave its hands like Al Jonson singing ‘Mammy’ took considerable nerve. But surely having both soloists and chorus at times singing into the rear of the stage during the lament over Jonathan took the biscuit.
So if the singing seemed at times underpowered it wasn’t clear whether this was or wasn’t deliberate. The value of most of these idiocies eluded many of us meagre participants who’d paid good money to watch Olivia’s Fuchs up….
Like Messiah, Judas Maccabeus, Samson and perhaps Theodora, Saul speaks directly to an English sense of national destiny. This is the Glorious Revolution set to music. Complex characters struggle with the raw emotions of their political circumstance. Their arias are full of anger, guilt; envy, remorse and love. Their choices drive the action as events carry the principals to disaster. A harrowing lament and elegy sung by David and the chorus over Jonathan’s dead body takes up about a sixth of the entire Oratorio. It’s only a twentieth part of the words of Jennens’ libretto. Saul is about the guilt of a political class – about betrayal and usurpation about envy and hate about love and honour. Handel melds music to the politics of his time as powerfully as Verdi does a century later. The final chorus is a hymn celebrating the triumph of the godly (Protestant) and constitutional (Hanoverian) over tyrannical (Stuart). It was partly cut. It was the unkindest cut of all. Handel deserves better.
The highlight of the festival was undoubtedly Donizetti’s ‘Maria de Rohan’. This is a historical subject so beloved of the bel canto composers of the first half of the nineteenth century. The story is set in the court of Louis XIII and his minister Richelieu the action revolves about the infamous day of dupes…when the cardinal is dismissed and reinstated in twenty four hours. The infamous day of this drama plays out with its echoes of nation, duty, family and political and social disgrace.
Staged in seventeenth century costumes…the simple set was dominated by a giant ticking clock. Mary Plazas sang a beautiful Maria – looking for the most part suitably doomed as any tragic Donizetti heroine might. John Bellemer gave a workmanlike account of Riccardo, Count of Chalias. But William Dazeley stole the show with an Enrico of such power, range and fine singing that it brought the house down. He should have been awarded many more curtain calls than the restrained tradition of ensemble bows allow. It was a great night and one hardly felt the rain on the way home.
Buxton is conveniently near Chatsworth, Hardwicke Hall (a must for everyone to see) and the wonderful ruined Jacobean gem – Bolsover castle. The church at Tideswell is well worth a look though the interior is spare of surviving detail. It’s a pretty town. There’s plenty of shopping in the locality and at least an opportunity to enjoy the local specialities Bakewell tart and Bakewell pudding. The Chatsworth farm shop is a real experience for foodies. And there’s a truly great Fish and Chip restaurant in the Market square of Buxton.
If you like walking, opera or lovely countryside….you must go…