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Buxton Festival 2010 - July 7th to 25th : A preview by Robert J Farr (RJF)

Buxton Opera House - Picture © Steve Caddy, Pure Buxton Magazine

If the North of England as a whole had consciously wanted to get into the emerging festival scene 40 years ago, not leaving it all to the plush Country Houses of the south and Sussex, it could scarcely have chosen a better venue than Buxton  in Derbyshire’s Peak Distict. Of course it didn’t quite happen like that because Buxton in the 1970s was hardly ideal. As a town it was faded and suffering from ill-conceived architectural developments whilst its grander parts were in desperate need of attention. The town was mainly known as a centre of medical excellence in the field of orthopaedics and rheumatology in the wonderfully located Devonshire Hospital whose appearance and history told a tale of grander times. The name Devonshire, and its associations in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, with both opulence and significant contributions to science, meant that Buxton and its spa basked in the shadow of the Devonshire seat at Chatsworth and its magnificent house, a must-see for all visitors.

Buxton is located over one thousand feet up in what is known as the High Peak. Its surrounding moorland is not as bleak or as unpopulated as Exmoor or Dartmoor - rather it bears the marks of earlier industrial activities and centres. Despite this, the High Peak can appear as wild and lonely as anywhere in England, particularly in the depths of a winter such as we have just had when the town can be cut off by road for days. Villages with houses and premises of local stone, either grit stone from the Dark Peak or paler limestone from the White Peak, are scattered through its body. Natural features such as great and enchanting caverns mingle with man made lakes created to fuel nearby industry in Manchester and Sheffield and in Roman times Buxton was a spa whose remains became lost but not entirely 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 but 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. A splendid hill top building was completed in 1789 as stables, with a large unsupported dome added in 1881 by which time the stables had become a hospital specialising in rheumatic diseases. The hospital is now part of the University of Derby. The elegant curved Crescent, long in decay, is currently emerging from its scaffolding and refurbishment to rival, as originally intended, the crescent in Bath. Meanwhile, Buxton’s Pavilion Gardens have already benefited from much restoration and provide an excellent opportunity for relaxation in the July sun or a place to take a stroll through the exotic indoor garden or by the lake.

What Bath does not have however, is a theatre to match Buxton’s; a theatre designed by Frank Matcham whose elegance of design conception is world-renowned. The Buxton Festival, which opened on 30th July 1979, is focussed on this magnificent building, now refurbished as the pictures show, to former Edwardian glory. Early Buxton Festivals were the domain of opera and drama but after various trials along the way, the Festival has now settled into a pattern of music, with significant opera, along with what a
Literary Series consisting of talks and interviews by authors, broadcasters, politicians and the like. Introduced by former politician and Chair of the Festival Roy Hattersley in 2000, the Literary Series along with the opera and recital contributions has become the mainstay of the event. The 2010 programme which runs from July 7th to 25th can be accessed in full at . There is also an easy to view diary summary at .

Inside Buxton Opera House - Picture Courtesy of Buxton Festival
Seen and Heard International will be reviewing the first three of the operas presented this year. Also worthy of note to newcomers are the pre-performance talks given by those involved in the productions: these are given either in the Opera House itself, the Palace Hotel or in the nearby University of Derby’s Dome Building.

This year’s first Festival production, Verdi’s fifteenth opera, Luisa Miller, will be conducted by Festival Director and renowned conductor Andrew Greenwood and produced by Stephen Medcalf. This duo have been responsible for major successes like Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux and Lucrezia Borgia over the past three years. The drama of Luisa Miller will be nicely contrasted with performances of Peter Cornelius’s rarely heard comic opera The Barber of Baghdad.

Verdi’s Luisa Miller comes near the end of the composer’s early period which is renowned for its stirring choruses that so roused the audiences in the oppressed and occupied states of pre-unified Italy. First staged in 1849 only Stiffelio, the story of a married pastor that enraged the censors, comes between it and the great middle period works Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata. Like the first of that trio, the focus of the love interest in Luisa Miller is shared with the complex relationship of father and daughter. Musically it has distinct parts. The earlier acts, look back to the somewhat rhythmic rum ti tum music of the composer’s early period that often belied the sentiments being sung, whilst the structural maturity of the final act is at an altogether different level. Susannah Glanville, well known to Opera North audiences will sing the name part with David Kempster as her father and John Bellemer her aristocratic lover. First night will be the opening of the festival on July 7th with further performances on 10th, 14th, 18th, and 22nd.

In completely different mood the second offering is Peter Cornelius’s The Barber of Baghdad. Composed a mere decade after Verdi’s opera it is a melodious comic opera of a genre rarely seen in the UK. The libretto by the composer was adapted from stories in The Arabian Nights. It is sung in a new English translation by Hugh Macdonald; the Director is the up and coming Alessandro Talevi and the conductor Stephen Barlow.

The title role will be sung by the renowned bass Jonathan Lemalu making his fist appearance at the Festival along with Adrian Clark as the Caliph, Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks and Frances McCafferty

Performances will be given on July 8th, 11th, 15th, 19th, and 24th.

The third operatic offering by the Festival itself will be Mozart’s opera seria Idomeneo (1780). This will be given in English and in concert format on July 13th, 17th and 23rd. The edition used will be that arranged by Richard Strauss, who, in the 1930s, when the opera seria genre in general and Mozart’s Idomeneo in particular, was neglected, tried to broaden its appeal. Idomeneo was the last opera seria Mozart wrote before his final written opera La clemenza di Tito (1791) shortly before his premature death. Andrew Greenwood will conduct an all-star cast featuring Paul Nilon as Idomeneo, Victoria Simmonds as Idamante his son, Rebecca Ryan as Ilia, Mary Plazas as Ismene and Jonathan Lemalu. These concert performances offer a very rare opportunity to hear this adaptation. The performances will be given on 13th, 17th and 23rd of July. The pre-performance talk by the renowned musicologist and Strauss scholar Michael Kennedy on July 13th in the Palace Hotel will be a must for Strauss and Mozart enthusiasts.

The Classical Opera Company also will present Mozart’s singspiel Zaide with its own orchestra conducted by Ian Page. This is claimed as a world premiere of Ian Page’s completion of Mozart’s work for which the composer wrote only seventy or so minutes of music before realising that it would not be staged. Sung in English translation, the opera is directed by Melly Still. The title role is sung by the South African soprano Pumeza Matshikiza, with tenor Andrew Goodwin as Gomatz.

Mozart seems to have got in the singspiel mode in the 1779-1780 Salzburg winter with the revision of
La finta giardiniera into Die garterin aus liebe and began the composition of a further work in this genre. He was perhaps influenced by the contemporary craze in Austria and Prussia for all things Turkish and it may also be that the ever-competitive Mozart might also have been keen to upstage Gluck’s harem opera La Rencontre imprévue , a runaway success since its Viennese premiere 1764. It is not known if he Mozart was commissioned to write the work nor is the provenance of the libretto. However, after a while and with no prospect of a staging Mozart abandoned the work completely leaving it without overture or the final denouement of a second act finale. Johann André, who made a completion of the work published in 1838, gave it the name Zaide.

The best-known piece in the opera is the act one Ruhe sant, mein holdes Leben (Rest gently my handsome being). It is often heard on the concert platform and on recital records. It is more a song or lullaby than a formal aria. Its introductory elegiac music has echoes of deh vieni from Figaro. The work will be perfroamed on July 9th and 20th.

Another welcome regular visitor to the Buxton Festival is the Opera Theatre Company, Dublin and their orchestra who will present , as in past years, a Handel opera directed by the effervescent Annilese Miskimmon. This year’s choice is Alcina, a story set in a timeless world full of passion, plots and illusion. Intrigue surrounds the alluring but ruthless sorceress, who spends her time seducing lovers, then, once bored, swiftly discarding them. However, when the handsome Ruggiero is bewitched by Alcina's charms, his fiancée Bradamante enlists the help of her friend Melisso and, disguised as a man sets out to rescue her beloved. Sinead Campbell-Wallace will sing the title role, Stephen Wallace her bewitched lover Ruggero and Doreen Curran Bradamante. Performances will be given on 12th, 16th and 21st July.

Also worthy of note are
Bernstein’s trouble in Tahiti on July 15th and 22nd and Richard Rodney Bennett’s opera for young people All the Kings Men. This will be given in the Methodist Church with the Dark Peak Youth Orchestra on July 9th, 12th and 13th at 5pm.

There are various music recitals over the period of the Festival, usually in the Palace Hotel. Tickets can be obtained for el events at

Robert J Farr

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