An unfamiliar but compelling version of Leonore precedes an assured staging of Bellini’s Romeo and Juliet opera and the challenges of Handel’s great tragedy
The Guardian by George Hall
This year’s Buxton festival opens with Beethoven’s only opera, in an unfamiliar edition: the original version of 1805, usually called Leonore (Beethoven’s preferred title) as opposed to the final revision of 1814, known as Fidelio.
Conductor Stephen Barlow and director Stephen Medcalf declare themselves partisans of Leonore, which they believe to be more satisfying and illuminating than Fidelio, though the majority of Beethoven commentators disagree, arguing that the tighter structure of the later revision and the composer’s innumerable rewrites, small and large, turned something exceptional but awkward into a masterpiece.
At any rate, there’s a commitment here on the part of the Buxton singers, orchestra and chorus that is frequently impressive, even if Medcalf’s identification of the political prisoner Florestan with the socially isolated Beethoven feels clichéd. In Francis O’Connor’s lowering unit set and period costumes, much of the rest of the staging nevertheless proves compelling.
The impassioned Kirstin Sharpin hurls herself at Leonore’s demanding notes – even more difficult in this version than in the later one – while David Danholt’s Florestan is similarly bold and bracing. Hrólfur Saemundsson constructs a venomous Pizarro, with Scott Wilde an affably ambivalent Rocco, Kristy Swift a precise Marzelline and Stuart Laing an angry Jaquino.
The festival’s second offering, Harry Fehr’s staging of Bellini’s Romeo and Juliet opera, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, is more consistently assured. Yannis Thavoris’s set presents a barbed-wire fenced military base that doubles as the Capulet townhouse, while his costumes define the mutually antagonistic groups of Capulet and Montague paramilitaries.
Bellini makes his dramatic points through the expressive potential of his vocal lines, and here the main participants harness them with considerable imagination. Sarah-Jane Brandon’s supple soprano moves around Giulietta’s notes with easy but emphatic command. She’s nobly partnered by Stephanie Marshall’s resolute Romeo, himself challenged by Portuguese tenor Luis Gomes as his half-flaky enemy Tebaldo, whose thrilling top register places him at the epicentre of a volatile situation constantly teetering on the edge of open violence. With Buxton’s orchestra and chorus on pugnacious form, conductor Justin Doyle maintains musical as well as dramatic momentum.
Adrian Linford’s set for the third production, Francis Matthews’ staging of Handel’s great tragedy Tamerlano, suggests an 18th-century gentleman’s cabinet of curiosities, placing us at distance from the heights and depths of one of the most psychologically direct texts ever set by the composer. Paul Nilon’s limited performance of the complex role of Tamburlaine’s opponent, the humbled Ottoman sultan Bajazet, doesn’t help.
Marie Lys, though, sings with sweetness if not quite enough intensity as Bajazet’s daughter Asteria, while Owen Willetts’ smoky countertenor lends substance to her beloved, the Greek prince Andronico. Rupert Enticknap cuts a striking figure as the tyrannically capricious Tamerlano, though he’s challenged by Handel’s runs. Catherine Hopper offers a respectable Irene, Robert Davies a solid Leone. In the pit, Laurence Cummings draws mellifluous sounds from the English Concert, though occasionally more dynamism would be welcome.