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Buxton Festival 2008:  Albert Lortzing ‘The Poacher’ or ‘Der Wildschütz’ – a comic opera with dialogue Drumm/Holland/Hulett/Howarth/Parfitt/Rutherford  Northern Chamber Orchestra/Greenwood, Buxton Opera House 10.7.2008 (RJW)

It was good to see the Buxton audience treated to a polished performance of a Lortzing work generally neglected by international repertoire. Although still widely played in Germany, this composer’s comic operas (apart from Zar und Zimmerman which ran in the 1840s London and whose overture was regularly heard between the 1840s-50s) have only travelled across its borders on rare occasions. This must have been one of the few times Der Wildschütz has been played in England.

An English libretto by Patrick Mason follows the original closely  (written in the High German of Saxony, then Lutherian German  by the composer) and introduces a few good puns involving Count Eberbach. These were clearly enjoyed by the near-capacity audience. It would have been appreciated if the English libretto had been able to flesh out those places where repetition of phrase to fit the music comes across as laboured.

The Buxton performance was slick and the singing superb. The cast were confident and thoroughly rehearsed in Mason’s production. The soloists sang well and two quartets were particularly well balanced. As the young Baron, Ben Hulett radiated  strong charisma and is a good find for Buxton: his light tenor voice with subtle vibrato was strong and effortlessly punched through with the top line of the stirring Hunting chorus. In fact his stage presence was excellent throughout.

Equally strong was Judith Howarth as a disguised Baroness who, although unrelaxed in her opening aria, warmed up splendidly in the second act. I hope we will see more of these two singers at Buxton next year: their third act duet was a delight. James Rutherford’s rich bass timbre suited his role as the central figure, Baculus while Ashley Holland as the Count conveyed the role’s important strength of character. Imelda Drumm offered good support as the Countess, and  as the faithful Gretchen Laura Parfitt provided a bright presence and communicated well with the audience. Rutherford, Howarth and Drumm are names familiar to Buxton audiences. A point should be made about the excellent clarity of diction, an area that the cast and director have worked hard on: this is much appreciated in a comic opera with spoken dialogue and  because of it  the plot can be effectively advanced. (This genre cannot be called ‘operetta’ incidentally since the French term only came in usage with Offenbach from the 1850s onwards.)

The production was very good and movement generally filled the stage appropriately. A majestic opening was followed by a long opening scene with Baculus and Gretchen. Lortzing’s idea of teaching the villagers their ‘A-B-C’ seems rather eccentric these days, and the visually rather static set is a fault of the structure of the work than this production. Perhaps I did wonder why the splendid chorus of villagers and children that appeared in the finale couldn’t have usefully adorned the opening dance and drinking chorus, where no village children were evident. It might have then made better sense to teaching the ‘A-B-C’ so that the adults'  singing coulld be seen as  reinforcing the children’s learning. There was some good stage business elsewhere and I liked the shooting party scene with authentic rabbits and pheasant. Spreading the shot game in a row downstage along the footlights however, became somewhat repetitious when the device was later repeated for a row of gifts, and later for baskets of flowers.

The choice of costume for the production was authentic and appropriately fitted the period of the piece. Downstage the set was also  meaningfully presented with elegant door frames, window and greenery, but to have an over-generous 20ft tall set seemed totally pointless. It tended to attract the eye upwards and away from some stage activity. The expense in achieving this might have been more usefully diverted to dress the set more fully. The stylish sky blue floor mat and blue sky for the two exterior acts over-stretched the imagination: why couldn’t a backdrop have been flown in for the first and third acts? Sight of stylised property bushes with spiral foliage surely contradicted the use of genuine furniture in Act II. The chorus sing, ‘The sky is clouding over” before the lighting cue to fade takes place and hopefully in future perfomances the cue  will precede the lines even though no sky is visible.

The clinically clean contours and colours of the fixed set provided little opportunity to light effectively and I did consider it odd that foliage gobos were used on interior walls in Act II which were then left blank for the exterior of Act III where they were widely used as a backing.  It was good to see naked flames in use on stage instead of the ineffective electric imitations often used to pamper eccentric whims of safety. These were first used effectively to represent a row of footlights for the Countess’s dramatic recitations and again later to overcome a ‘blackout’. But it is too far fetched to think that a billiard cue hitting a 20th Century overhead billiard light fitting would cause a power cut in days before electricity was discovered!  The billiards table looked unusually prominent on a sparsely furnished stage yet provided a good focus for a practical on-stage game in which the audience was amused to see good ‘pot’ shots mastered.

The small orchestra played well under Andrew Greenwood, who took the music at a delightfully brisk pace. I was pleased to see that the gun shot cued in the overture was accompanied by a forestage appearance of the school teacher, poacher Baculus, for the plot hinges on this particular event. Lortzing’s melodic score provides robust choruses in the Germanic tradition and in places,  provides contrastingly delicate support for the quartets and arias. Lortzing’s operas were premiered in Leipzig at the time when the Conservatory there was growing in status for its training of future composers. The Peter’s edition band parts used in Buxton,  match with those used in the benchmark 1960’s recording by Heger apart from one noticeable place where an undercurrent of strings seems to be missing in a bridge between two sections of the overture: this passage’s repeat at the opening of Act III where again the solo wind followed by lone cello seemed unusually exposed.

It is exactly right that the Festival continues to provide a lighter work to compensate for the heavy components of the programme, as they did last year with Offenbach. Wexford is gaining a reputation for being pretentiously academic and uninspired by its committee’s operatic choices. To receive patronage they must remember that they need to entertain and this element in the Buxton Festival is clearly still a firm commitment. The volume and variety of high class supporting events in this year’s programme continues to be as good as ever and I wish the 2008  Festival well.

Raymond J Walker

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