July 24, 2015
Manchester Evening News by Robert Beale
It could be said that this year’s operas at the Buxton Festival are all about girl power. All three of the in-house productions have a woman’s name as their title, and the visiting Dido And Aeneas from The English Concert was built around one of the greatest tragic female roles.
Watching soprano Kate Ladner punch the air as she took her curtain call in Giovanna D’Arco – Joan Of Arc, by Verdi – I wondered whether she saw it as a kind of victory, too. It certainly was a triumph for her as a performer.
The title role is the sole female lead in this version of the story (written by Verdi’s collaborator, Solera, following Schiller’s play The Maid Of Orleans). She’s on stage most of the time and has vocal mountains to climb. She surmounted them brilliantly, with ringing top notes that shone like beacons over the full ensemble, chorus and orchestra.
The intriguing thing about this work – not often performed now, though it’s later than some of Verdi’s better-known pieces – is that it digs pretty deep into the psychology of its heroine. She hears voices, but they are alternately those of demons and angels (yes – real ones, on stage!), and she is torn between their conflicting demands.
She tries to suppress her unspoken love for Carlo (the Dauphin/King of France), but he’s pretty hot for her, and they have some superb duets of passion and duty. Tenor Ben Johnson makes a very good fist of him.
And there’s her interfering (to put it mildly) father, who betrays her to the English – sung by Devid Cecconi: another layer in this interpretation is the Traviata-like triangle of young lovers and well-meaning but out-of-touch father figure.
Director Elijah Moshinsky is well aware of these human and relationship tensions and brings them clearly to the fore. The set (Russell Craig) is a simple but effective one-piece that reflects, literally and acoustically, the action and the music, while also providing a vantage point for the demons and angels to sing from. Lighting (Malcolm Rippeth) and sound (Seb Frost) effects are used to evoke the thunderbolts and battles, and it all works very well.
Verdi was a master of stirring marching tunes and he got into the groove for both the French and English in this opera. With Stuart Stratford (recently announced as the new music director of Scottish Opera) conducting the Northern Chamber Orchestra and Festival Chorus, the big tunes and scenes romped along as much as the tender ones were beautiful.
Buxton Festival has its limitations – small stage, small chorus, moderate budget – but within those realities this is one of the best efforts I’ve seen there.