Buxton Festival 2011 – Breaking new ground with three distinctive home grown productions

14/07/2011

Buxton Festival 2011  –  Donizetti, Handel and Thomas: Soloists, Buxton Festival Chorus and Orchestra, 9-11.7.2011 (RJF)Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1868). Maria Di Rohan. (1843).Opera seria in three acts. 9.7.2011
George Frideric Handel
(1685-1759). Saul. Oratorio in three acts (1739). Staged. 10.7.2011
Ambroise Thomas
(1811-1896). Mignon. Opera in three acts. (1866). 11.7.2011

In this, artistic Director Andrew Greenwood’s fifth and final year in charge, new ground was broken with the first three operatic offerings being Festival Productions, a notable achievement. Buxton Festival has done regular justice to Donizetti over the years and did so again with one of the composer’s last operas before the raging spirochetes of the syphilis overwhelmed him and reduced him to mute vegetable status and early death. In previous years homage to Handel and his period has been via a visiting company. This year a staged updating of the oratorio Saul was the fare on offer, the Festival following a fine example of bringing the best for the music, with Harry Christophers and his Band of the Sixteen providing the backing. The third major offering of Ambroise Thomas’ rarely heard Mignon had Greenwood on the rostrum again with the able backing of the excellent Northern Chamber Orchestra and Festival Chorus. Last year Buxton Festival scooped Silver at the National Tourism Awards, second only to Royal Ascot in the Best Event category, having won the Gold in earlier Regional Awards. The opera productions played a significant part in that achievement and deserve to do so again.

In 2006, in his first year as Artistic Director, conductor Arthur Greenwood opened the Festival with a well received production of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux directed by Stephen Medcalf (see review), and with the soprano Mary Plazas in a leading role. Two years later he presented the composer’s earlier Lucrezia Borgia (see review) with Mary in the eponymous role and with the same production and design team of Stephen Medcalf, designer Francis O’Connor and with lighting by John Bishop. This production trio also presented Verdi’s transitional Luisa Miller last year (see review) under Greenwood’s baton. This year all are back with Mary Plazas in the title role of one of Donizetti’s final operas, Maria di Rohan. It really has been a case of if it works don’t mend it. This team has produced a series of winners that many of our regional opera companies should envy as they wallow with wacky money losing productions by directors who, if not tone deaf, have little idea of marrying the dramatic demands of theatre to music.

Also returning to Buxton this year were the American tenor John Bellemer as the husband Riccardo and the Wales based Bulgarian Mirouslava Yordanova as Armando di Gondi. She greatly impressed last year as Duchesse Federica in Luisa Miller and as Orsini in Lucrezia Borgia in 2009.  This Autumn she will cover the role of Giovanna Seymour in the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena which is scheduled for world wide cinema transmission on October 15th To complete a strong cast of principals was William Dazeley, whom I greatly admired as Posa for Opera North (see review). He was the lover that Maria should have married but for her mother’s dying wishes.

Frances O’Connor’s designs were his most imaginative yet with the action focused on the front of the stage and within the first of three, large toothed cogwheels with a clock face at the rear; and there were further lateral and rotational movements of smaller wheels turning from time to time in moments of particular drama. Add imaginative lighting and Stephen Medcalf’s direction and Donizetti’s drama unfolded slickly and with appropriate dramatic impact.

Donizetti’s Maria Di Rohan was the second work he composed for the Kärntnertor Theatre in Vienna and followed his well-received Linda di Chamounix the previous year. In between the composer had been present at the premiere of Verdi’s Nabucco at la Scala in March 1842 and its influence can be heard, particularly in the tenor cabaletta and that of the duet between the Riccardo of Johm Bellemer and Chevreuse of William Dazely. The tenor was a little lumpy vocally in Act One, but recovered to sing a well-phrased and lyrically dramatic and convincing role in the remainder of the opera. His well supported voice freeing up to ring with impressive and imperative phrasing. He was well matched in physique and vocally by the strong steady tone and impressive acting of William Dazely who never blustered and sang with particular elegance as well as creating a well defined character. He is a notable addition to the Buxton roster whom I hope to hear again in this genre of repertoire.

If the men were big in stature and voice they were more than matched by the pint sized divas of Mary Plazas and Mirouslava Yordanova. Both belied their size to give imperiously acted and sung realisations of their respective roles. Mary Plazas has the vocal facility to meet every varied demand – and there are many – that Donizetti makes on the troubled woman whose only error is to obey the ill considered demand of her dying mother. The demands take her through elation to despair and Mary was well able to bring these emotions to the fore with dramatic and eloquent singing of the very highest order; her portrayal was even better than her earlier roles at Buxton and I can think of no better compliment.

Miss Yordanova portrayed the foppish Armando di Gondi with some distinction, looking particularly brave in issuing a challenge, complete with a slapped glove, on the face of the distinctly bigger intended opponent.  She sang the two additions Donizetti added when he converted the role from tenor comprimario to principal travesti for Paris, with flexibility, good diction and phrasing to go along with her even lustrous tone.

Whatever the strength of the soloists, it was the conducting of Andrew Greenwood that brought this consummate performance to its full stature and did full justice to Donizetti’s penultimate creation. His long association with opera enables him to reflect and feel his soloists’ needs whilst also doing justice to a composer’s creation. All these too rare skills were in evidence in this performance and alongside an ideal balance of tempi and modulation to give as near a perfect performance as I can remember from him, or many others. I only hope that the Opera Rara recording of the work due in November under Sir Mark Elder is as convincing.

The overall good diction, notable among all the soloists, the period costumes and the contribution of the chorus all came together with the production and set to make this one of my performances of the year. There are further performances on July 12th, 15th, 20th, 23rd, and 27th all at 7:15pm

Saul

Director Olivia Fuchs’ take on Saul is highly political. In Yannis Thavoris’ post Second World War set, with a backdrop of lit skyscrapers, Saul is aloft on his dais along with his family to welcome the all American pilot hero, David, who returns having just nuked Japan. The cheerleaders, and a daughter promised to the returning hero turn to jealousy, and the Korean War is soon to bring the dead home in act three. Taken as a valid update this setting just about worked albeit with some jarring incongruities, just like most such efforts often do.

The playing of Harry Christophers and his Band of the Sixteen and most of the solo singing were the plus points for an audience, sparse by comparison with the full to the rafters of the preceding and following nights. In the title role Jonathan Best sought our indulgence with a bad cold. Although imposing of stature as President, his strong and forthright tone lost focus from time to time. Not so the David of Anne Marie Gibbons in the castrati role of David, now in travesti as the pilot fighter. She sang with good tone, legato and trills, decorating the line with skill. Also worthy of note was the Michal of Ruby Hughes and the Jonathan of Robert Murray, both of whom created worthwhile characters. The Festival Chorus added vibrancy to the proceedings.

Further performances of Saul are scheduled for July 13th, 17th, 21st and 24th.

Mignon

Based on Goethe, Ambroise Thomas’ opera marked his effort at returning to composition after a brief period as an academic at the Paris Conservatoire. He wrote thirteen stage works, most involving spoken dialogue, as was the tradition at the Opera Comique Theatre in Paris, one of the many opera theatres of the city that provided entertainment for the populace. Premiered at the theatre on 17th November Mignon became the composer’s most successful operatic creation, marking up, as Andrew lamb’s informative essay in the programme notes, one thousand performances by 1894 and fifteen hundred by 1919 after which it fell into rapid decline. The music is full of gentle lyricism contrasted with more dramatic outbursts as the story unfolds. As is his skill, Andrew Greenwood encompassed these varied demands with customary aplomb with director Annilese Miskimmon utilising the simple yet effective sets with skill. The costumes were updated to around the 1920s

If the two women made the most effective impact on the performance, not least because they had the ideal figure du part, there is no implicit criticism of the men. Gillian Keith’s floozy Philine was outstanding in all respects, her silvery coloratura soprano complementing her acting. Wendy Dawn Thompson in the eponymous role bent herself into her prison of a laundry basket with aplomb. Elsewhere she moved like a dancer and sang and acted with conviction to create a meaningful and sympathetic character.

Mignon, like Gounod’s Faust, shared the same origins in a Goethe play and librettists in Barbier and Carré. The story runs smoothly allowing for touches of evocative and even spectacular theatre as Mignon threatens to drown herself and Lothario, to be revealed as her father, sets fire to the house. A particular effective piece of theatre was held to the last, during the final trio in this production, I will not spoil your enjoyment or surprise. As the hero who comes to realise that Mignon is the real human being and worthy of love, American tenor Ryan MacPherson sang with bright well-characterised and open tone although not without the odd moment of strain, I would gladly travel to hear him as Faust. As the wondering Lothario, forget Shakespeare, Russell Smythe started somewhat unsteadily but soon found form to give a well sung and convincing portrayal of the wondering broken hearted father. Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks as Laerte acted and sang well making what he could of the part.

Since returning home to write this review I have squeezed in a listen to the recording featuring Marilyn Horne in the title role (Sony CD. No longer available). What that reinforced was my delight in the lovely music and reaffirmation of my Buxton impression as to how much better it all blends together when performed in the original language. There were moments during this performance, when a singer having to manoeuvre around the English words of Hugh Macdonald’s translation, while maintaining the vocal line and worthy expression, were painful. Buxton is International and has title facilities, used to illuminate the English in Saul and Mignon; the facility should have been used to translate the latter, though that the diction of the soloists, to be heard with clarity in Matcham’s lovely theatre, was largely exemplary throughout the three operas reviewed.

Further performances of Mignon are scheduled for July 19th, 22nd and 26th at 7.15pm.

Robert J Farr 

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