Reviews of Buxton International Festival operas 2022

La Donna del Lago at Buxton International Festival:  Máire Flavin as Elena (red dress) 

Credit Genevieve Girling

La Donna del Lago

Tottola and Rossini, after Walter Scott

Buxton International Festival

Buxton Opera House

8, 12, 15,17, 22 July 2022, 2 hours 50
minutes

 

After the outright cancellation of 2020 and
constrained conditions of 2021, Buxton International Festival is back and
firing on all cylinders this year. And its operatic flagship is a masterwork by
Rossini.

Written in 1819, it was inspired by Walter
Scott’s poem, The Lady of the Lake, and is an early example in European
opera of full-blown Romantic ideas coming to the fore – war and peace, love and
rivalry, wild and remote locations, supposed ancient traditions and figures
from the past. There’s even a reference (not taken from Scott) to characters in
the writings of the mythical Scottish bard, “Ossian”, a literary fake that hoodwinked
most people at the time.

And musically we find Rossini on the cusp
of using new-fangled Romantic language in his otherwise cute-and-classical writing:
off-stage horn calls, tremolando strings, the sound of the harp to convey local
colour (no matter that there’s nothing specially Scottish about it). At the
same time he was going all out for popular appeal, and one of the climactic
numbers is a competitive duet for love-rival tenors in which the dramatic
tension is reflected vocally by bursts of repeated high Cs (and more) from both
of them.

The story is fairly simple: Elena (the Lady
in question) is the daughter of a chieftain whose loyalty used to lie with the
King but who’s now mixed up with rebel Highlanders. He’s betrothed her to their
leader, but she really loves another. The King, disguised, comes across her and
falls for her, too (hence the two-tenors rivalry). Battle goes badly for the
rebels, but Elena seeks to save her father and her true love, and in the end …
Well, I won’t give it all away.

Director Jacopo Spirei and designer Madeleine
Boyd have staged the opera in a way that conveys general impressions – ragged clothes
for the Highland warriors, shiny techno-style costumes for the King and his
forces; a interior/exterior set to provide the lakeside locale for the first
act and a geometric, power-lit coldness for the King’s palace in the second … showing
there’s a clash of cultures as well as of loyalties, a nice gloss on the
storyline. The use of a tiny model boat to represent what the script says is
Elena’s offer to her visitor of a trip across the lake got a bit of a titter from
the audience – but what else can you do on a stage like Buxton’s?

What you need for this opera to work is two
tenors with first-class Italian-style top registers: tick – Buxton has Nico
Darmanin and John Irvin. You also need a really good bass-baritone and a virtuosic
wide-ranging mezzo (for the trouser role of Elena’s warrior true love: tick –
Buxton has David Ireland and Catherine Carby. And above all you need an utterly
wonderful soprano as Elena: Buxton has Máire Flavin, and her rondó finale at
the end brings the whole thing to a triumphant close, as it did on the first
night in 1819 and needs to every time.

So the casting is top-class. So is the chorus,
all 22 of them plus some minor role singers, too. Buxton has nobly managed so
often in the past with a small-scale body, but at last it’s great to hear a
full-throated crowd of them in the bright Opera House acoustic.

And the musical direction, by festival
artistic director Adrian Kelly, is full of energy and impact. The Northern
Chamber Orchestra plays with precision and panache, and the whole thing rattles
by with both brilliance of coloratura technique and glorious tone production from
all the principals.

(Giulio Cilona conducts on 12, 15 and 17
July).

Antonio e Cleopatra

Ricciardo and Hasse

Buxton International Festival

Buxton Pavilion Theatre

13, 16, 20, 22 July 2022, 1 hour 25 minutes

 

This is Buxton International Festival’s
second fully home-grown opera production for 2022. Antonio e Cleopatra
is a “serenata” – a baroque mini-opera employing a tiny orchestra and a smaller
cast … the title tells it all, as there are just two of them.

It was written in 1725 by Johann Hasse, a
German who, like Handel, had his first successes in Italy, and created for
production in Naples – then part of the Holy Roman Empire of the Habsburgs.

As the state museum in Vienna will proudly
tell you, the Habsburg imperial crown, inherited from Charlemagne, has symbols that
show supposed continuity from the Caesars, and this piece makes the point by
having Cleo and Mark Antony finally console their unhappy lot (after the battle
of Actium) by looking to a future world ruled by Kaiser Charles VI and his
missus, Kaiserin Elisabeth. Very loyalist, if a tad historically unlikely.

So how to present a two-acter in which the
lovers (both written for high voices) spend the whole time telling each other
how they feel, and nothing actually happens? This is baroque opera, and the convention
is that each aria (always in da capo repeat-the-beginning-after-a-middle-section
form) represents one emotion only – despair, anger, renewed love, determination,
regret, resignation, heroic fatalism, etc. The succession gives the singers opportunities
to show what they can do in each mood, and that’s the drama.

Director Evangeline Cullingworth (with the
help of designer Grace Venning) seems to find parallels in the agonies of a penniless
(or even homeless) young couple of the present day. We’re in a near-bare bedroom,
and they have nothing but the clothes they stand up in and one big suitcase of a
few remaining treasured things. These turn out to include bits of Roman armour,
a pair of angel wings, some wigs, theatrical costumes, imitation pistols and
hair brushes. Perhaps they have been acting in some dead-end theatre, as finally
they dress up in full Carry On Cleo mode for the suicide pact that ends the
piece?

The props, of course, give them something
to do as they emote their way through Hasse’s arias (plus a couple of duets,
one to close each act), with all those repeats. The vocal music is extremely
taxing, though, and the quality of the two singers – Thalie Knights, as Antonio,
and Ellie Neate, as Cleopatra – is what the audience has come to hear. They are
top-class young artists, well able to embellish their repeats tastefully, and
in Ellie Neate’s case making the most of her frequent bursts of high-powered top
notes (originally written for Farinelli). The first-act closing duet, “Un solo
sospiro”, verges on the Handelian in its variety of emotive resource and showed
the two both at their best.

Musical direction from the harpsichord is
by Satoko Doi-Luck, with a tireless in-period string quintet beside her.

 

Viva la Diva

Donizetti after Sografi, English version by
Kit Hesketh-Harvey

Salzburg State Theatre in association with
Buxton International Festival

Buxton Opera House

10, 14, 19, 21 and 23 July 2022, 2 hours 55
minutes

 

It’s good to see that Buxton International
Festival can laugh at itself. Here we have an adaptation of material originally
written to be a comic opera about opera, by Donizetti, turned into a tale of
the auditions, rehearsals and final chaotic performance of a piece by the “High
Peak Festival” – guess what that might be.

There’s the aspiring hopeful from the Royal
Northern College of Music, the heavyweight star soprano with equally nasty
minder from eastern Europe, the mezzo who flounces out to be replaced by the
grande dame of the local musical scene, the tiny Italian tenor with a sore
throat, the dodgy impresario who can’t quite find the cash to pay everyone on
time, and the hapless director trying to hold it all together.

So far, so good, as ideas. In practice, Viva
la Diva
turns out to run 40 minutes longer than they estimated when the
festival programme was printed, and it’s not quite as funny as it thinks it is.
Maybe that’s to do with the inevitable in-jokes of opera singers sending themselves
and their colleagues up, maybe it’s because Kit Hesketh-Harvey’s English words
to fit around Donizetti’s tunes, full of internal rhymes and cleverness, still aren’t
as tight as a script for a comic opera should be (he also gets extended mileage
out of imagined absurd surtitle translations of an Italian libretto – OK first
time but not worth doing over and over). Maybe the extra length is to do with preparations
for the second act, which is technically quite ambitious, but if you’re going
to do an exercise in The Opera That Goes Wrong (as this does), you have to be
sure we know which bits are gags and which are not.

There was a feeling of improv creeping in,
as if the presence of a male in drag (George Humphreys, stealing the show as
supposed contralto Lady Agatha Wigan) turns everything to panto in British theatreland.

Many of the rest of the cast are capable of
strutting their stuff as genuine bel canto singers, and I suppose they needed
to have the opportunity to prove it, but the progress of the plot is slowed by
rather too much Donizetti in the process. So full marks to everyone for singing
really well at times and acting funny at others, to conductor Iwan Davies and
repetiteur Katie Wong for both being and portraying their roles, to the
Northern Chamber Orchestra for both their excellent playing and for pretending
to go on strike, and to director Stephen Medcalf and the technical team for
everything that went wrong properly.


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