Buxton Festival Enters the Stephen Barlow Era

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Buxton Festival Opera, Northern Chamber Orchestra , Opera House, Buxton, 1,8,9.7.2012 (RJF)

Richard Strauss: Intermezzo
Georg Frideric Handel
: Jephtha
Jean Sibelius:
The Maiden in the Tower
Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov
: Kashchei the Immortal

In 1979, when it seemed that summer cultural events, particularly opera, were the domain of the plush pastures of the south of England with country houses rushing to emulate Glyndebourne, the first rather pretentiously named Buxton International Festival was launched. It opened on 30th July of that year with the wind and intermittent rain howling round Matcham’s wonderful Opera House, which had for far too long used as a cinema and destined to be the centre of activities. Thirty years ago the sometime elegant Crescent, conceived by a Duke of Devonshire, who aspired to make this a spa town to rival Bath, was sadly decayed with the town’s central dominant domed building a renowned centre for the treatment of orthopaedics and rheumatology and now used by the University of Derby. The Crescent and Spa renovation is slowly, despite many hydrological problems, moving towards completion with a new hotel, the first for over 100 years, scheduled to open in 2014 after the investment of around £3  million and will add further character and appeal to Buxton. It will match the name Devonshire and its associations in the nineteenth century, which were of opulence and significant contribution to science. Buxton and its Roman Spa will no longer bask in the shadow of the family seat at Chatsworth, albeit its magnificent house will continue to be a must for all visitors.

With the auditorium of Matcham’s opera house now opulently restored to its former glory as the centre of Festival activities, Buxton is an ideal setting for a summer festival of the arts. With its magnificent setting in the High Peak at over 1000ft above sea level the weather can be a consideration. It can be in the mist when nearby Macclesfield lower down is sunny, or experience unexpected snow as Lancashire Cricket Club found in early June 1976. But on an average July day, then as now, people of vision saw Buxton among the moorland and rocky crags as having the potential for a major cultural event. Whilst the early Buxton Festivals were the domain of opera and drama, nowadays the Festival has settled into a pattern of music, with significant opera, along with what is entitled a 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 activities, along with the opera and recital contributions, have become the mainstay of the event. Such vision has been amply realised as the more modestly called Buxton Festival has come to be regarded as a centre of cultural excellence in a nineteen day celebration that involves an opera every day and on most days two concerts and two literary events in a packed programme.

With this non-summer of seeming perpetual rain, the sodden pastures of the south east of England dare not remind Buxton of when snow stopped play on the local county cricket ground. Here at least, the elegantly dressed ladies do not have to hitch up their dresses to keep them clear of mud and one can retire to a friendly well-built hostelry rather than a cold marquee for refreshments. If the sun does shine, a walk on the paved pathways of the lovely Pavilion Gardens is an added delight. With all these possibilities around it was with the knowledge of past pleasures and anticipation of new delights that I again attended the opening three nights of opera on behalf of Seen and Heard.

In 2011 new ground was broken at the Buxton Festival in artistic Director Andrew Greenwood’s fifth and final year in charge with the first three operatic offerings being Festival productions for the first time, a particularly noteworthy achievement. This achievement is matched this year, the first under the new Musical Director, Stephen Barlow, who conducted the opening opera, Richard Strauss’ Intermezzo.  Prior to 2011 homage to Handel and his period was via a visiting company – a policy that changed in 2011 with the Festival itself presenting a staged updating of the oratorio Saul.  This year the policy was continued with a staging of the oratorio Jephtha. Harry Christophers’ band and The Sixteen, provided the musical backing. The third opera evening was a Double Bill of two one act operas each receiving its British stage debut – yet another notable achievement. All the opening productions were sung in English with titles

Strauss, Intermezzo, Op 72: Buxton Festival Opera, Northern Chamber Orchestra / Stephen Barlow  (conductor), Opera House, Buxton, 1.7.2012 (RJF)

Christine Storch: Janis Kelly.
Robert Storch: Stephen Gadd.
Baron Lummer: Andrew Kennedy.
Commercial Counsellor:Jeremy Huw Williams.
Stroh:    Richard Roberts.
Legal Counsellor:    Colin Brock.
Anna:    Susanne Holmes.
Notary’s wife:               Martha McLorinan.

Director:     Stephen Unwin.
Designer:     Paul Wills.
Lighting designer:     John Bishop

Intermezzo:Janis Kelly and Stephen Gadd; photo credit: Buxton Festival Opera

The first Festival production in 2012 was Intermezzo by Richard Strauss. Billed as a comedy, it is seen as a semi autobiographical comment by the sixty-year-old composer on his own marriage to a wife on whom he doted. It is a little like Verdi’s Falstaff with the comedy laced with more than a gentle touch of humanity and pathos at its conclusion.

Strauss wrote the libretto himself, based almost exclusively on real life exchanges with his wife. It is a work of what might be called conversational recitative with the thirteen changes of scene and location facilitated by symphonic interludes. Each of these orchestral interludes reflects the factual and emotional situation of the complex unfolding story. Towards the end, as the composer and his wife reflect on the nature of their often fraught, but loving, relationship, the opera features some of Strauss’s most radiant love music.

Strauss’ Intermezzo is not an opera of lyric lines for singers. Rather the story unfolds in a series of what might be called recitatives and dialogues with a complex musical background. Legato lines and elegant phrasing are not paramount considerations, but the ability to reflect the words and the music in vocal expression and nuance allied to consummate acting. Together with a superb choice of singing actors in a basic set with simple stage props, changed between the frequent scenes with the lowering of a front curtain and gauze during each orchestral interlude, director Stephen Unwin blends the whole into a wonderful dramatic experience. As the composer Robert Storch, Stephen Gadd’s tall figure allied to his committed acting and vocal strength brings authority as well as the agony of the marital misunderstandings to the fore. His is an outstanding portrayal matched, blow by marital blow, by Janis Kelly as his wife. Vocally and histrionically she gives the role every nuance. She is no mere neurotic harridan or misunderstood lonely wife who comes second to her husband’s art in his many absences, nor, possibly, a cougar who actually has to resist her temptations with the younger Baron Lummer. She manages to convey a wife who loves her husband whilst maintaining a naturally feisty temperament. Her variation of tonal colour is a fine example of the art of singing and characterisation.

As Baron Lummer Andrew Kennedy, a singer whose acted portrayals I have from time to time found unconvincing, plays and sings his role to the same standard of perfection as his two colleagues. I suspect that this again is the influence of Stephen Unwin who draws from him a superb acted characterisation whilst allowing and fostering excellent use of the his undoubted vocal strengths. Richard Roberts as Stroh, who tries to mend fences between husband and wife, and Jonathan Best as the Notary who puts his principles before profit, sing and act with conviction and bring out the character portrayals well.

In the orchestra pit Stephen Barlow scores a significant success in his first assignment as Musical Director, both by his realisation of Strauss’ complex and refulgent orchestration and his choice of Director. A significantly promising start to the new regime. I must note too that the diction of the singers, except when speaking dialogue, was excellent. Incongruously the spoken dialogue words were not shown on the titles boards. Sitting four rows from the front of the stalls they were sometimes indistinct to my ears.

Further performances of Intermezzo will take place on July 10, 13, 19, 22 (matinee) and 25th.

George Frideric Handel, Jephtha: Buxton Festival Opera, Orchestra of the Sixteen and Festival Chorus / Harry Christophers (conductor), Opera House, Buxton, 8.7.2012. (RJF)

Jephtha: James Gilchrist
Storge: Susan Bickley
Iphis: Gillian Keith
Zebul: Jonathan Best
Hamor: William Purefoy
Angel: Elizabeth Karani

Stage director: Frederic Wake-Walker
Lighting designer: John Bishop

Jephtha:Gillian Keith as Iphis; photo credit:Buxton Festival Opera

As Handel’s operas, or staged oratorios, struggle to get a worthwhile foothold in the UK repertoire, the Buxton Festival has always done its bit, initially with a contribution by a visiting company. In 2011, an updating of the oratorio Saul was a success musically with Harry Christophers and his Orchestra of the Sixteen leading the way. So it was again this year. His period instrument band and the well-drilled Festival Chorus provided the highlights of the evening.

Director Frederic Wake-Walker aimed at a timeless production. His set of five chairs, and a music stand with the top horizontal, was minimalist to say the least. Add the perpetual black costumes of the chorus, whose neck attire was inexplicable, and his aspirations were theoretical rather than realised. He talked about avoiding a traditional approach with biblical costumes, or a change of time or venue, suggesting that acted signals would suffice. The all pervading darkness was lightened only by John Bishop lighting Gillian Keith’s hair and her later scarlet coat as Iphis awaits execution with her head resting, for some time, on the flat music stand top! The production seemed to fall between every one of the few chairs in sight and which received some abuse during what, in the words if not clearly in the action, was meant to represent the battle scene. The performance concluded with an ovation for the singing and musicians and, rarely heard at Buxton, boos for the producer, with many of the audience around me being left in dramatic confusion. This was a pity as James Gilchrist’s portrayal of the title role was of the highest standard, his expressive singing and vocal nuance exemplary in all respects. Susan Bickley as Storge and Jonathan Best added good vocal support and acted as best they could, even when this involved merely standing about looking serious.

Further performances of Jephtha are scheduled for July 11, 14, 18, and 21.


Sibelius / Rimsky-Korsakov Double Bill: Buxton Festival Opera, Northern Chamber Orchestra and Festival Chorus / Stuart Stratford. (conductor), Opera House, Buxton,  9.7.2012.  (RJF).

Sibelius: The Maiden in the Tower (sung in a new English translation by Rodney Blumer, with titles; libretto by Rafael Hertzberg)

Maiden: Kate Ladner
Lady of the Castle: Emma Selway
Lover: Richard Berkeley-Steele
Bailiff’s son: Owen Gilhooly
Postman: Robert Poulton

Rimsky-Korsakov, Kashchei the Immortal (libretto by the composer, sung in a new English translation by Rodney Blumer, with titles.)

The Princess: Kate Ladner
Kashchei’s Daughter: Emma Selway
Kashchei: Richard Berkeley-Steele,
Storm Wind: Robert Poulton
Ivan the Illustrious: Owen Gilhhooly

Director: Stephen Lawless
Designer: Russell Craig
Lighting designer: John Bishop

The Maiden in the Tower: Kate Ladner and Richard Berkeley-Steele; photo credit:Buxton Festival Opera

Beautiful melodies, mythical settings and magical storylines, this Double Bill features damsels in distress from captivating Russian and Finnish fairytales. The two operatic rarities each reflect their composer’s nationalismThe common theme between these two diverse works could be described as: men lock up women.

The Maiden in the Toweris Sibelius’ only completed operatic work, if thirty-five minutes of musical drama deserves that imprimatur. It is the story is of a young maiden who rejects the advances of a malevolent bailiff who kidnaps and imprisons her. Racing to her rescue, her young lover prepares to fight a duel to rescue his sweetheart.

This simple story, and brief melodic musical support, includes an orchestral interlude and, not wholly unlike Tosca, a prayer for the lead soprano that disturbs the dramatic momentum. Buxton had the inspired idea of playing it alongside Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kashchei the Immortal and commissioned Rodney Blumer, better known as Rodney Milnes (sometime editor of Opera Magazine and authority on anything operatic) to provide translations from the original languages.

In the Rimsky-Korsakov opera Kashchei the Immortal, which is more substantial in length and with dramatic music, an evil wizard imprisons a beautiful young princess in his gloomy underworld. He will remain immortal as long as his daughter, a cold-hearted witch, holds back her tears. Rimsky-Korsakov’s dramatic storytelling and elaborate harmonies provide the musical substance.

Director Stephen Lawless and designer Russell Craig blend these two works within a common imaginative and colourful set. The tower is like a large dolls’ house in which the imprisoned damsel of the Sibelius work is fastened and joined, with evil intent, by the bailiff. For the second opera, the tower is turned round to reveal a cage containing the imprisoned damsel. A cupboard of toys becomes a host of faces of murdered people whilst the large grandfather clock serves as an entrance and exit cum hiding place. In the other opera, the added technology of pictures on a TV screen helps the plot’s cohesion and progress. The set is in complete contrast with that for Jephtha being both colourful and very obviously functional. The lighting by John Bishop is spectacular with the  snow effect in the Rimsky brilliantly realised. The mask with which the evil male adorns his face creates another link between the operas, which show great creative imagination all round.

Two outstanding vocalists and interpreters sing the evil male and put upon female. I know Richard Berkeley-Steele of old. His strong voice with its lyricism allied to heft enables him to ride the orchestration at dramatic moments. His acting ability and capacity to convey words and emotions are well to the fore. I was more than pleasantly surprised by the size and lyric strength of Kate Ladner singing. She has a most interesting repertoire extending from Juliette via Violetta to Aida as well as Desdemona and Donna Anna, though not all in the same period I expect. But it was the strength of her voice, allied to its warm lyricism and excellent characterisation that made me note her name for future reference. I note that she is returning to her native Australia for Salome.

Along with the singers mentioned, Owen Gilhooly particularly, alongside Robert Poulton and Emma Selway completed a well-balanced cast singing with vocal refinement as well as creating believable characters and, like their colleagues, letting us hear the words. In this latter respect they were aided by Stuart Stratford, in his Buxton debut, handling the orchestral forces of the Northern Chamber Orchestra with dramatic focus allied to the élan required and with proper recognition of both the drama and the singer’s characterisation.

Further performances of this Double Bill will take place on July 12, 20, 24 at 7.15pm and on July 17th at 4pm.

Looking forward to 2013

August 2012 will see the retirement of Glyn Foley as Chief Executive after 14 years at the helm and which have seen massive developments in Buxton Festival whilst also balancing the budget. He will be replaced by Randall Shannon who has previously worked in a variety of arts organisations as well as in film and television.

As is so vital if standards are to be maintained in respect of casts and directors, planning for next year’s Buxton Festival is well under way. As new Artistic Director Stephen Barlow made clear at pre-performance talks, the future will continue to involve lesser known and performed works. In 2013 these will include Mozart’s dramma giocoso La finta giardiniera, (The Pretend Gardener-Girl) of 1774 with its occasional pre-echoes of the great works to come a decade later, particularly in the finales to acts 1 and 2 and with richer orchestration than found in his earlier works. Alongside the Mozart will be a double bill of two even less frequently performed French operas, Gounod’s La colombe (1860) and Camille Saint-Saëns’ La princesse jaune (1872). Further details will be put on the Buxton Festival website as they become available.


Robert J Farr