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Buxton Festival 2009: a preview from Robert J Farr (RJF)

Although once surrounded by industrial centres, the High Peak as it is known, is as wild and lonely as anywhere in England. Villages with houses and premises of local stone, either gritstone from the Dark Peak or paler limestone from the White Peak, are scattered through its body. Natural features such as the great and enchanting caverns mingle with man made lakes created to fuel local industry. In Roman times its major town of Buxton was a spa whose remains became lost but not forgotten. The magic of its waters as a cure drew the ill fated but rheumatic Mary Queen of Scots on temporary release from her imprisonment at Chatsworth. However, it was not until the late 18th century that the 5th Duke of Devonshire, casting envious eyes on the success of Bath, began to build his own spa town below the main central hill and including its elegant crescent. The splendid hill top building was added in 1789 as stables with the large unsupported dome added in 1881 when it had become a hospital specialising in rheumatic diseases. It is now part of the University of Derby.

When I used to venture up to Buxton to lecture on courses, the elegant curved Crescent was in decay and threatened by development such as has ruined some of the shopping area. However, vision and affluence were to ensure its survival. An important aspect of the vision was the inception  in 1979, of what was somewhat pretentiously called The Buxton International Festival. It opened on 30th July of that year with the wind and intermittent rain howling round Matcham’s wonderful Opera House, far too long used as a cinema. Buxton is over 1000ft above sea level and the weather is always a consideration, between mist when nearby but lower Macclesfield is in sun, to unexpected snow as Lancashire Cricket Club found on June 2nd 1976 when playing a match. Snow stopped play takes some beating, especially in June!

My early venture to see opera there was in 1981 when English National Opera  North, (the precursor to the present day Opera North), presented Tosca with the late lamented Sarah Vaughan in the name part. It was early April and we wondered round in the late afternoon sunshine delighting in the setting. The following week Buxton was cut off for three days by snow! Usually by July time,  the weather is behaving itself and there is no finer place to wander than the Pavilion Gardens and the eponymous Pavilion built in 1871. An iron and glass confection,  it was inspired by London’s Crystal Palace built for the Great Exhibition. Four years later in 1875, the domed concert hall was added and later still the conservatory, now filled with exotic plants. But it is Matcham’s glorious Opera House, now restored to its Edwardian Glory that is the centre of the Festival.

The early Buxton Festivals, the pretentious International soon bit the dust, were the domain of opera and drama. After many viscitudes along the way the festival has now settled into a pattern of music, with significant opera, along with what is titled Literary Series which encompasses talks and interviews by authors, broadcasters, politicians and the like. Introduced by former politician and Chair of the Festival Roy Hattersley in 2000, these have become, along with the opera and recital contributions,  the mainstay of the event. The whole opera programme has been greatly lifted by the refurbishment of Matcham’s elegant theatre completed around the same time. Aidan Lang who has since handed over the baton of Artistic Director to conductor Andrew Greenwood, established stability in the opera field. Greenwood himself is immensely experienced in this genre. He learned his opera working at Covent Garden before moving to Welsh National Opera with the title of Chorus Master, but also conducting most of the extensive touring programme undertaken by the Company during the 1980s. His guiding hand can clearly be seen in this year’s programme. Seen and Heard will be reviewing the first four of the operas being presented.

The first Buxton Festival opened with Donizetti’s melody rich opera Lucia di Lamermoor. Donizetti’s works have played a significant part in the Festival ever since with rare opportunities to hear what were his lesser known works, now becoming more mainstream as with this years opener Lucrezia Borgia.

Seen and Heard will be covering the first four operas of this year’s programme starting with Lucrezia Borgia on July 10th. Written with his usual frenetic pace to open the Carnival Season at La Scala on December 26th 1833. Lucrezia Borgia was the forty-second of the composer’s sixty-five or so operas and precedes Lucia di Lamermoor, written for Naples, by some twenty months. Romani based the libretto on Victor Hugo’s Lucrece Borgia premiered in Paris earlier in the same year. The action of the story takes place in Venice and Ferrara in the early sixteenth century. Lucrezia’s interest in the youth Gennaro is misunderstood by her husband, Duke Alfonso, who suspects an affaire. In reality Gennaro is Lucrezia’s son, his identity known only to her. Alfonso orders the arrest of Gennaro on a trumped up charge of having insulted the Borgia family. Lucrezia arranges his escape. Later, at a banquet Lucrezia poisons a number of her enemies and is devastated to find that Gennaro is among their number. Gennaro refuses the antidote because the amount is not sufficient for all his companions as well. He is horrified when Lucrezia confesses that she is his mother. Gennaro dies and the distraught Lucrezia follows suit after an appropriate aria that Donizetti added for a later production.

In the course of the story, Lucrezia who has already seen off three husbands takes on her latest in a dramatic confrontation. It is an ideal role for the diminutive but feisty soprano Mary Plazas who showed her credentials as Elisabeth in Roberto Devereux two years ago with the same conductor and director, Andrew Greenwood and Stephen Medcalf (see review). The work will be sung in Italian with English surtitles.

After the first night on July 10th, other performances follow on the 14th, 18th, 21st, 25th and 28th of the month. As with the other operas included in the Festival there will be pre-performance talks, usually across the road in the premises of the University.

The second night of the Festival, July 11th is a complete operatic contrast, with the first of five performances of André Messager’s sparkling French operetta Véronique. The story concerns Hélène, a noblewomen who, to ensure her suitor is after her not her money, disguises herself as a worker in a florists shop. The music includes the well known donkey and swing duets. Victoria Joyce sings the title role with Mark Stone as her playboy suitor. The ever-reliable Wyn Davies conducts; Giles Havergail directs. The other performances are scheduled for the 15th, 19th, 22nd and 26th of July. Véronique will be sung in English.

The first visiting opera company appears on the third night when The Classical Opera Company present Mozart’s Mitridate, re di Ponto on July12th. Based on an episode in Racine’s tragedy it was composed when the young genius was a mere fourteen years of age, and already with a clutch of operatic successes behind him. The work exists in many versions whilst the music is full of the young man’s musical hallmarks, not least the high flying coloratura demands on Aspasia sung by Alison Bell. The performances are claimed as the first ever staging of the original version. Ian Page conducts his period instrument orchestra with Martin Lloyd-Evans as producer and the work is sung in Italian with English surtitles : there's a second opportunity to see and hear the production on the 20th of July.

The final opera to be covered by Seen and Heard will be Handel’s Orlando on July 13th. The Opera Theatre Company from Dublin  returns to Buxton with this production commemorating the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death. Orlando is an opera of conflicting passions in which the  hero struggles to balance his love for Angelica with his duty as a soldier  - a struggle which ultimately drives him mad. Orlando’s emotional turmoil is matched by the agony of Medoro’s rejected lover Dorinda. Only Zoroastro escapes the torment of love and tries to lead Orlando to sanity. The soprano roles in Orlando are the firecrackers and get most of the best traditional A-B-A da capo arias. Here Handel was playing safer than with his quite daring, more unstructured arioso and accompagnato work for the castrato Senesino. Chritian Curnyn conducts with Annilese Miskimmon directing. William Towers sings Orlando and Jonathan Best Zaroastra. The work is sung in English and repeated on 23rd and 27th July.

Other notable musical offerings include two performances of Mendelssohn’s only opera, Comacho’s Wedding. Produced by Buxton Festival and conducted by Andrew Greenwood it promises to be a fitting commemoration of the composer’s 200th anniversary. Performances are on the 16th and 24th of July. Also worthy of note are performances of Maxwell Davies’s chamber opera The Lighthouse given to celebrate the composer’s 75th birthday in a production by Psappha of whom he is a patron. Although sung in English the opera will be given with surtitles on 17th July and also in a matinee performance on the 25th. Worth catching too will be an all too rare performance of Rossini’s Petite Messe Solonelle. This is a great rarity with its accompaniment of harmonium and two pianos and is neither little, solemn nor liturgical. The composer gave up writing opera after his 39th opera, Guillaume Tell when aged only 37, despite living on into his 76th year. He was at the height of his powers when he retired and after the death of Beethoven was widely regarded as the leading composer of his day. He described this work, among others, as the little sins of my old age. With Andrew Greenwood conducting the Buxton Festival Chorus, this  75-minute piece will be performed in the Palace Hotel at 3pm on July 27th drawing this year’s Buxton Festival towards its conclusion. 

Robert J Farr - with thanks to Sue Loder

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