Buxton Festival Review
July 12, 2011
The Telegraph by Rupert Christiansen
Mignon contains some charming and shapely music, but even the Buxton festival’s director could not mask the shortcomings in Thomas’s score.
Rating: Mignon/Maria di Rohan: * * * Saul: * * * *
Charming and shapely music: Marie di Rohan at Buxton Festival
This was the final Buxton Festival for which Andrew Greenwood has served as artistic director. An underrated conductor, with a Mackerras-like gift for energising an orchestra, he has done a terrific job over the last five years in raising the Festival’s musical standards and making it an essential part of the operatic calendar. Stephen Barlow will doubtless prove a worthy successor, but Greenwood will be much missed.
Yet even his vigorous baton could not mask shortcomings in the scores of Thomas’s Mignon and Donizetti’s Maria di Rohan, and neither production quite hit Buxton’s peak. Mignon contains some charming and shapely music, notably the showpiece arias ‘Connais-tu le pays?’ and ‘Je suis Tytania’, but the libretto, a muddled Goethe-based romance about theatre folk and their backstage affairs, is weak, and the central act turgidly slow.
I could admire the sensitivity of Annilese Miskimmon’s light-footed staging, attractively designed by Nicky Shaw, and enjoyed the thoughtful singing of Wendy Dawn Thompson in the title-role and the clean, well-schooled tenor of Ryan MacPherson as her admirer Wilhelm Meister. But ultimately I found the whole thing too bloodless and mopily sentimental to be engaging.
So it was a relief to turn to the tougher, rougher melodrama of Maria di Rohan, even if the opera’s first hour proceeds on autopilot. The third act is a corker, however, as Maria’s chaste infatuation with another man is uncovered by her enraged husband and Donizetti gives rein to his genius for duets of impassioned confrontation.
Buxton fielded a strong cast for this ménage à trois. Mary Plazas sounded stretched at times, but brought her customary musicality and commitment to the role of Maria, John Bellemer sang with gusto as her lover, slugging it out with William Dazeley, on top form as the betrayed husband. Stephen Medcalf’s staging was stiff and over-elaborate: a starker setting with less period flummery would have intensified the emotional pressure.
Handel’s masterly oratorio Saul emerged more cogently in Olivia Fuchs’ inventive but ungimmicky staging, updated to post-war Washington DC. Harry Christophers was the stylish conductor, presiding over the Orchestra of the Sixteen’s lively playing and an accomplished line-up of solo singers, among whom Anne-Marie Gibbons (David) and Robert Murray (Jonathan) shone brightest. The chorus, all-important in this work, was ragged of ensemble but spirited in attack, and the piece’s sublime conclusion proved very moving indeed.