Buxton Festival 2013

Opera Now by Simon Rees

Buxton Festival 2013

Buxton Festival takes place in one of the loveliest – and highest – English towns, a neoclassical oasis in the Peak District of Derbyshire. Now that the Opera House has been renovated (with gilt cherubs disporting themselves on the proscenium arch) and the restoration of the Crescent, built to rival Bath’s, is approaching completion in 2015 as a spa hotel, the town is in excellent form, and the festival visitors can wander between shows along the Broad Walk and through the park beside the river Wye, listening to trad jazz from the bandstand and watching the Muscovy ducks.

This year, the festival under its new management of Stephen Barlow (artistic director) and Randall Shannon (executive director) offered the usual mixture of rarely-performed operas and minor classics, with some productions imported and others generated by the festival itself. Joanna Lumley, wife of the artistic director, had done sound work in drumming up support at the various launches, and Lord Hattersley, another festival stalwart, attended many of the events (and led one himself) giving the whole place the faint air of a European Grand Duchy. Which, with the Devonshires just down the road at Chatsworth, I suppose it is.

The first show I saw was La voix humaine, billed as ‘music’ rather than ‘opera’ but given an effective staging by director Marie Lambert. Poulenc’s large orchestral score was replaced by a piano reduction, played with effective colour and richness by Pascal Rogé and sung by the soprano Anne Sophie Duprels, demonstrating that the combination of voice and piano (especially in a smaller auditorium, like the recently-opened Pavilion Arts Centre at Buxton) can be a satisfactory alternative to full orchestra. Duprels gave the heroine, all alone by the telephone, a pathos that deepened and darkened, while enjoying the early exasperated comedy of crossed lines and perplexed operators.

Double bills can often be more than the sum of their parts, and the combination of Saint-Saëns’s La princesse jaune (sung in French) and Gounod’s La Colombe (sung in a witty English translation by Hugh Macdonald, who managed to rhyme ‘parrot’ with ‘carrot’ and ‘claret’ in the recipe for the unfortunate victim) certainly benefited from the clever double set. The yellow princess herself was painted on a screen in an artist’s cluttered studio on the floor above the room where La Colombe took place. Conducted by Stephen Barlow and directed by Francis Matthews, Ryan MacPherson (a bit flat from time to time) sang Kornelis, the drug-bewildered young man who falls in love with the Japanese woman on the screen, much to the annoyance of his cousin Léna, sung again by Anne Sophie Duprels, who made the most of the comic possibilities of the role. On the floor below, after the interval, the strange (and originally Persian) tale of the beloved pet dove which must be sacrificed to provide dinner for the hero Horace’s girlfriend Sylvia (sung with wonderful coloratura dexterity by Gillian Keith) was acted out with gamin comedy by Emma Carrington, playing the breeches role of the urchin Mazet, and Jonathan Best playing the chef Maître Jean, who sacrifices the rival’s parrot and brings it, beautifully cooked, to the table, thereby rescuing the dove. It was fun to see Julian Barnes, who wrote Flaubert’s Parrot, in the audience for one of the two operas with major references to parrots – the other is, of course, La bohème.

I have to declare an interest in the next opera, as I translated the surtitles. La finta giardiniera, written when Mozart was 18, has a buffo plot of unusual silliness, set to music of great wit and beauty that presages the great comedies to come. Harry Fehr’s production set the opera in Long Island, with the Mayor (Christopher Lemmings) in Nantucket Red slacks, and Sandrina/Violante (Ellie Laugharne) transformed from garden-girl to florist. Wounded by her former lover, Contino Belfiore (Andrew Kennedy, in excellent command) she has sought refuge with the Mayor, but is horrified to learn that Belfiore is to marry the Mayor’s niece Arminda, played with outrageous and hilarious comedy by Stephanie Corley, who came on in bright yellow with high heels and a matching ostrich handbag, and proceeded to steal, quite legitimately, every scene that followed. The wedding marquee transforms, not to a forest but to a dank cellar (signifying debasement?) where Sandrina is imprisoned, and where she and Belfiore hallucinate that they have been turned into gods and goddesses before being freed and reunited. Nicholas Kraemer conducted with panache and precision, and the audience had, as they usually do at Buxton, a wonderful time.