United Kingdom Saint-Saëns, Gounod, Double Bill: Buxton Festival Opera , Northern Chamber Orchestra / Stephen Barlow (conductor), Opera House, Buxton, 5.7. 2013. (RJF)
The Buxton Festival of 2013 is the thirty-fifth since those first tentative steps back in 1979. In those seemingly far off days 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 International Festival, as it was rather pretentiously called, 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 been used as a cinema and was destined to be then, as now, the centre of activities. The opening events in the past three years had similar weather to that opening season, a state of affairs that seemed set to continue as the wind howled and the rain lashed down on the Pennines as earlier in the week. Then, on the opening day summer came and Buxton basked in 23 degrees. In such weather Buxton is an ideal venue for an arts festival with its Matcham Theatre elegantly restored over a decade ago, the long neglected Crescent now seen in better gloryand the elegant Pavilion with its adjacent gardens .
Stephen Barlow, in his second year as Artistic Director, has chosen to continue the tradition he inherited last year by opening with a double bill of operas by French composers whose works graced the Opéra-Comique in Paris.
Camille Saint-Saëns, La Princesse Jaune. (sung in French with English titles).
Kornélis: Ryan MacPherson (tenor).
Léna: Anne Sophie Duprels (soprano)
Director: Stephen Matthews.
Designer: Les Brotherston.
Lighting Designer: John Bishop.
In the pre performance talk, together with long time producer and collaborator director Francis Matthews, Stephen Barlow suggested that one reason for opening with this combination, apart from continuing the policy of putting on rarely performed works, was that each was a confection linked by obsession as well as the French opera comique tradition.
In the opening work, La Princesse Jaune, it is the painter Kornélis who is obsessed with Japan and particularly a lady whose portrait derives from his imagination and dominates his life. Meanwhile he is fancied by his cousin Léna who is frustrated by having to compete with the figment of his imagination. The action is set in Kornélis’ untidy garret studio, imaginatively conceived and only fully realised by the audience at the opening of the second opera.
Saint-Saëns’ music is somewhat heavier in patina than the Gounod, albeit melodic and very suitable for the plot. I was a little disconcerted at Ryan MacPherson’s opening phrases, which seemed somewhat strangled and effortful. He rapidly improved, but overall failed to convince me vocally whilst acting convincingly. When I later read his biographical details I was none the wiser as he had sung Pinkerton as well as the standard lighter Mozart tenor roles of Ferrando and Ottavio. I hardly recognised the same singer in the second offering, but that is to jump ahead.
In the role of Léna Anne Sophie Duprels was fully in command of the language, the vocal demands of the role as well as being a natural actress. Her warm expressive soprano is fully up to the vocal demands of the orchestration and her vocal expression and committed acting enabled her to present a consummate portrayal.
Charles Gounod, La colombe (sung in English with some titles).
Sylvie: Gillian Keith
Mazet: Emma Carrington
Horace: Ryan MacPherson
Jean: Jonathan Best
Production: See La Princess Jaune
Gounod’s La colombe is an opera comique based on the poem La Faucon by Jean de la Fontaine. The work was presented in the revised two-act version.
Orchestrally in lighter vein, the first big surprise was the appearance and singing of Ryan MacPherson. He looked a wholly different character, in the role of penniless Mr Horace, obsessed with a pigeon that is all he has left after vainly courting Sylvie. His lyric tenor sounded utterly different and more comfortable than in the Saint-Saëns work. His voice seemed ideal in size and he brought elegance of phrase to his vocal interpretation to parallel his committed acting. In the travesti role of his servant Emma Carrington sang and acted with conviction, as did Jonathan Best as Sylvie’s maitre cum chef. As Sylvie Gillian Keith’s flexible coloratura was well up to the demands of the music whilst she looked the absolute perfect vamp for any man in eyeshot.
For some reason the work was sung in English. Sometimes it was painful to hear the English phrases bent to get round or fit Gounod’s light and elegant music. In addition, the titles often left gaps in the little known story and there was some audience fbemusement near me as to exactly what was going on, despite satisfaction with the quality of the singing and acting.
The entire story was acted out in what had been visual, but compressed, under the floor of the garret of the Saint-Saëns opera. Here was highly imaginative stage design at work!
In Act 1 Mazet, servant of the penniless Horace, is feeding his master’s beloved pet dove, when Maitre Jean, butler of Countess Sylvie, arrives meaning to buy the bird for her. Mazet explains that the dove cannot be used as a messenger but that he will try to convince his master to sell it. In spite of the poverty in which he lives – and in spite of his love for Sylvie – Horace cannot give up the bird. Maitre Jean suggests that Sylvie tries to buy the dove herself; she hesitates, but, thinking jealously about the magnificent parrot of her rival in society, Amynte, finally accepts the butler’s idea. Once alone, Sylvie expresses her confidence in the power of love which will bring Horace to leave her the bird. Horace is ecstatic that Sylvie is visiting and she announces right away that she will stay for dinner.
Maitre Jean has volunteered to prepare the meal and sings about the art of cooking. Mazet returns from the market empty handed, because the suppliers refuse to give credit to Horace. After a long discussion with Maitre Jean, on the best way of serving different plates, which are obviously impossible to prepare in such circumstances, Horace and Mazet set the table and decide to kill the dove to offer a meal. In the meantime, Sylvie is overcome with tender thoughts for Horace. They sit down to have dinner and, as Sylvie is about to ask for the dove, Horace reveals to her that it was killed. Mazet appears with a roasted bird; however, to everybody’s reassurance, it’s not the dove, but Amynte’s parrot that had escaped a little earlier. Sylvie is delighted to learn that Horace’s dove is still alive, because it will always remind her of his love.In both operas Stephen Barlow showed himself to be a sympathetic interpreter of the genre.
For more information see http://www.buxtonfestival.co.uk/opera-series/. There are further performances of this double bill on July 11th, 14th, and 20th.
Robert J Farr