Noel Witts - Professor of Performing Arts


July 10, 2013


This is this the first Buxton festival under the direction of Stephen Barlow and, as always, it provided, even in its first two days, many surprises. The town , and its hotels and restaurants, fill with opera buffs from all over the country, so that it  is not at all surprising to be told by a complete stranger, that on a vista to Berlin last week he saw a production of Mozart’s “Lucio Silla”, set in a brothel!

No such extravagances in the first performance , of Saint-Saens’ one acter, “La Princesse Jaune”, which was merely set in a Paris garret, and tells the tale of Kornelis, who is infatuated  by a painting of a Japanese girl, and who takes opium to relieve his pain! Beautifully sung and played by Ryan MacPherson and Anne Sophie Dupreis, and conducted by Stephen Barlow, this was a curiosity of which the joy was Saint-Saens’ obvious interest in non-Western sounds, conjuring an exotic palette from the Northern Chamber Orchestra.    The second one act piece was Gounod’s “La Colombe”, a story of  poverty-stricken Horace, who seems to live on the floor below Kornelis, thanks to the ingenious designs of Lez Brotherston. Horace has a pet dove which is the envy of Countess Sylvia, who insists on coming to dinner, only to be fed the dove by the penniless Horace. Only it turns out not to be the dove but a parrot which has escaped. The music is sub-Rossini crossed with Gilbert and Sullivan and is none the worse for that, once again finely performed by Gillian Keith as Sylvia, Emma Carrington as the servant Mazet, Ryan MacPherson as Horace, and Jonathan Best as Maitre Jean. The direction by Francis Matthews, is efficient and the playing is up to comic scratch, even if the music outstays its welcome a little bit.

The second Buxton Festival offering is Mozart’s early (composed when 18/19) “La Finta Giardinera”, not often performed due, one assumes,  to the complexity of the plot, which turns on changed identities and characters, dispersal and reunion, in fact some of the the themes followed up in “The Marriage of Figaro”. But these held no problems for Harry Fehr (director), Yannis Thavoris (designer) and Nicholas Kraemer (conductor). Fehr took the piece by it throat, cut portions and updated the whole thing to a prospective marriage and reception tent  in what might have been a Buxton back garden. The ensembles, which are part of the joy of this piece, sparkled away as did the many individual arias, and the cast had clearly got under the skin of this piece, which sped along under the expert reins of Kraemer. One had the impression of  the young composer trying things out and deliberately posing problems for the staging, which were  triumphantly solved at Buxton. One hopes that this production will tour as it’s too good to lose.  The other operatic productions in the festival are from the likes of Grange Park Opera, Mahogany Opera, and Music Theatre Wales, but on this showing Buxton Festival Opera can hold its own with any. Of course nothing would work without the extraordinary intimate splendour of Matcham’s Buxton Opera House, around which much in this festival revolves.

Then there is the Buxton Fringe, a well established free- for- all, based on the Edinburgh concept, where you take pot luck as to what you go for. I made a big mistake in going to the underground venue of the Old Hall Hotel for a misconceived piece of improvised theatre, which happily was made up for by some Dowland, played on early music instruments by Partita at Buxton Methodist Church, and an a cappella group from Soweto singing on the bandstand in the park.

But the finale to my visit was the Festival Mass, held at St John’s Church, with  the Buxton Choral Society singing Mozart’s Missa Brevis in D, to be broadcast later by BBC Radio 4. If anything served to prove writer Peter Conrad’s case, expressed in a talk the morning before, that music reaches the soul in a way that words cannot, then Mozart versus the pious platitudes of the assembled clergy was far and away the winner.

Festivals by their very nature create surprises and unexpected dialogues and the Buxton conversations this year were as good as ever -  one place where people can speak to each other and where languages can mix, and where the power of culture can prevail over the mistakes and mis-judgements of our current world.

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