Buxton – Heureux Ever After

Notes from Middle England by Chris Ramsden

Buxton - Heureux Ever After

Anyone seeing the smash hit musical Les Miserables – the Glums – would think nineteenth century France was an awful place. Well, the 35th Buxton Festival has opened with a couple of operas suggesting it wasn’t that bad at all.

Yes, there’s poverty, but of a very genteel sort. Yes, there’s cruelty – but it’s not shooting, whipping or beating as in the Glums; it’s just unrequited love. And it all ends well; love is after all requited in the end, and everyone lives happily ever after.

And then there’s the music. It has to be said that the works on show at Buxton lack the killer number; unfortunately, there’s no “I dreamed a dream”. But there is a wealth of melodic, well-made and attractive music from two masters, Saint-Saens and Gounod, brought to us by conductor Stephen Barlow, the Festival’s Artistic Director, and the elegant Northern Chamber Orchestra with delicious style.

Oh – and it’s all a lot funnier than the Glums, as well.

You have to imagine yourself not in the heart of the Peak District, but in the Place Boieldieu, in the centre of Paris, home of the Salle Favart, the Opéra Comique. It is there that La Princesse Jaune (the Yellow Princess) by Saint-Saens, which forms the first half of this double bill, was premiered in 1872; La Colombe (The Dove) by Gounod, the second half, first hit Paris in 1866.

La Princesse Jaune is left in French (with subtitles), I suspect because there’s not much dialogue anyway and the female star of this two-hander is French singer Anne Sophie Dupreis as a knowing young lady exasperated by her boyfriend’s proclivities. Her voice is so good she almost makes me believe a couple of her numbers could have a life outside this forgotten opera. Ryan MacPherson looks and sounds the romantic lover, obsessed with all things Japanese, including a woman called Ming (isn’t that Chinese? Ah well.)

This allows Saint-Saens to introduce a highly-spiced oriental flavour to his music, which must have confounded his first audience. As my regular reader will know, I consider Saint-Saens highly under-rated, and I was fascinated by this clever music.

The opera was never a big hit at the time, and though fun, it isn’t actually funny. But it proved to be only a curtain-raiser for the two acts of La Colombe, by Gounod, which was much more successful then and now, producing both laughter and applause.

This is translated into English by Hugh Macdonald, who adds to the jollity with some clever words; I was particularly taken with his rhyme of euros and neuros-es. Wisely, the arias have been given sub-titles; but quite a lot of the recitative is sung as well, and this hasn’t been sub-titled, so I think I missed quite a few gems.

Just to prove how good a singing actor Ryan MacPherson is, he turned up again in La Colombe, this time as a wimp with what sounded like a difference voice altogether. Emma Carrington makes a fine lad in her trouser role as the servant Mazet, and the indefatigable Gillian Keith is the flirtatious love interest Sylvia. Funniest, though, is the lugubrious Jonathan Best as Sylvia’s travelling chef; I see that his aria “we don’t know how to eat” is still on some recital menus. As he himself remarks, Pukka.

You came out of Les Miserables in tears; you’ll come out of this with a smile on your face. Let’s call the festival double bill Les Heureux – the Happies. (It’s repeated on the 8th, 11th and 20th July.)

I see that Buxton is on the shortlist as a Great Town in awards by the Academy of Urbanism (no, me neither, but their website is quite impressive – see http://www.academyofurbanism.org.uk/).

A team from this august body is due to visit Buxton in August to make a final decision.

It’s a pity they couldn’t have come during the festival, when so much is happening. And it looks like being a couple of years still before the town’s crowning glory – its beautiful eighteenth-century crescent – is back in business.

But I have been to Buxton in wind, rain and snow, yet never before on such a glorious day as yesterday. I am assured measures are in place to ensure the weather stays that way until the Academy of Urbanism has been in August, so this might be just the time for a trip to Buxton.