Peaks Performance: Buxton rises to the challenge of a welcome Leonore

Sunday Times by Hugh Canning

Peaks Performance: Buxton rises to the challenge of a welcome Leonore

The Buxton Festival was launched in 1979 with an operatic potboiler, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, but the following year established itself as a haven for opera epicures with two (then) rarities, Berlioz’s Beatrice and Benedict and Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet. Both starred top-flight singers: Ann Murray and Philip Langridge as Shakespeare’s sparring lovers; Thomas Allen as his tragic prince of Denmark.

Since then, the vicissitudes of keeping the event – which takes place around Frank Matcham’s neo-rococo jewel of an opera house – financially afloat have meant occasionally falling back on “standard” rep. Last year, Lucia was revived alongside a Verdi rarity, Giovanna d’Arco (Joan of Arc); this year, the original version of Beethoven’s Fidelio now rarely staged, shares the bill with Bellini’s far from unfamiliar Romeo and Juliet opera, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, and Handel’s bleak masterpiece

Beethoven made two tentative versions of Fidelio (though Leonore was his preferred title): in 1805, when it was a flop, allegedly thanks to Napoleon’s invading officers in the audience; and in 1806, when it scored a succès d’estime. In 1814, he made the thorough-going revision we know as his only operatic masterpiece, Fidelio.

Leonore has its champions, however, with John Eliot Gardiner among them – and Buxton’s conductor, Stephen Barlow, and director, Stephen Medcalf, are clearly of the same opinion. Medcalf tries to provide the sprawling drama with a framework by giving us a dumb show of Beethoven struggling to compose at the piano during the overture (Leonore No 2). At the end, when Florestan is set free, you realise he is the same man, liberated, perhaps, from his writer’s block.

Beethoven did indeed struggle with Fidelio. “I have to think out the entire work again,” he wrote to one of its librettists, to whom he also admitted that he wasn’t satisfied with the final authorised work in 1814. He ruthlessly cut it, jettisoning three numbers and substantially revising – improving, in my view – the drawn-out finale; and there are innumberable changes of detail. All are improvements, but the chance to hear the 1805 version is to be welcomed.

Buxton has cast it intelligently. Kirstin Sharpin makes a brave stab at the impossibly elaborate title role (the first Leonore, Anna Milder, complained to Beethoven about how difficult it was to sing), with a big, bright, reasonably flexible dramatic soprano, and David Danholt brings intensity to Florestan’s music, even if it is less exciting than in Fidelio. The Icelandic baritone Hrolfur Saemundsson revels in the extra villainy Beethoven throws at Pizarro, in the form of a vengeance aria with chorus to close act I, while Scott Wilde, Kristy Swift and Stuart Laing all made their mark as the prison staff, Rocco, Marzelline and Jacquino, respectively. After some “first night” rough edges, the Northern Chamber Orchestra met most of Beethoven’s challenges under Barlow’s solid baton.

The other two “in-house” operas were both worthwhile. Harry Fehr’s modern-dress I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Bellini’s first big hit, worked especially well in Yannis Thavoris’s ingenious military camp-cum-palazzo setting, suggesting aristocratic factions locked in a war of attrition. Two funeral scenes – for Capellio’s son, killed by Romeo before the curtain rises, and for Juliet – framed an action-packed show that only paused for Bellini’s bel canto reflections and bravura cabalettas.

Sarah-Jane Brandon’s Giulietta was the pick of the cast, singing Oh quante volte with a refined Sutherlandesque cantilena (and, less happily, Sutherlandesque diction), while Luis Gomes brought a verismo-like virility to Tebaldo, love rival to Romeo. This heroic mezzo-soprano role was played to perfection by the lissom, boyish Stephanie Marshall, but her voice was taxed, weak at the bottom and occasionally strident at the top. Justin Doyle kept the NCO on its toes, and the tiny male chorus made up in volume what it lacked in numbers. The hit of the festival.

Tamerlano had the advantage of master Handelian Laurence Cummings and the English Concert in the pit, who stormed through the opera, judiciously cut, in three hours. Francis Matthews made imaginative use of Adrian Linford’s “Enlightenment jumble sale” set, but didn’t always know what to do with the singers when they weren’t singing. I would have switched the two countertenors: Rupert Enticknap was physically imposing as the Mogul tyrant, but Owen Willetts outshone him with fruitier, more exotic tone as Andronico. Paul Nilon acted the defeated Ottoman emperor, Bajazet, with his expected intensity, but rarely sounded at ease with his demanding music. Marie Lys, a recent Royal College of Music graduate, was a promising, often alluring Asteria.