Buxton Opera Festival reviews: Big name operas and unbeatable settings create delightfully powerful fun

Helen Maree Cooper as Don Ettore, Dominic Mattos as Apollonia, Jane Burnell as Gasparina and Jonah Halton as Don Palagio in Buxton International Festival’s production of La Canterina.Helen Maree Cooper as Don Ettore, Dominic Mattos as Apollonia, Jane Burnell as Gasparina and Jonah Halton as Don Palagio in Buxton International Festival’s production of La Canterina.
Helen Maree Cooper as Don Ettore, Dominic Mattos as Apollonia, Jane Burnell as Gasparina and Jonah Halton as Don Palagio in Buxton International Festival’s production of La Canterina. | Genevieve Girling
An international festival which hosts some of the biggest productions and names in opera also boasts one of the most picturesque settings in the country, writes Mavis Kirkham.

Buxton International Festival is a treat for all your senses - top class opera from around the world and literary delights in one of the most beautiful areas of the Peak District. The annual event attracts culture lovers from across the country and always has a few surprises for even the most ardent fans.

You couldn’t find a more beautiful spot. Buxton Opera House itself hosts the main events but there are also gems throughout this pretty town. I would recommend making sure you explore further and attend something in the Assembly Rooms, Pavilion Arts Centre and St John’s Church.

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Although opera is the main attraction, there are a wonderful range of other musical offerings and literature experiences. Buxton will tempt you in with its world class offerings and you might well then find yourself addicted to this small town with a mighty reputation.

Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno by George Frideric Handel

Anna Dennis as Bellezza and Hilary Cronin as PiacereAnna Dennis as Bellezza and Hilary Cronin as Piacere
Anna Dennis as Bellezza and Hilary Cronin as Piacere | Genevieve Girling

This was Handel’s first oratorio. It presents a moral contest in which Pleasure, Time and Disillusion seek to persuade a young woman, Beauty, to follow them. In Buxton it is staged in a family home to create the action expected by a modern audience. The father is Time, the mother Disillusion, one daughter is Pleasure and they seek to convince the other daughter, Beauty. The contest continues through a family Christmas and the following summer. Eventually Beauty is convinced by her parents and chooses the path of virtue casting her vanities into a coffin dragged into the living-room by her father. This is not quite the journey to a remote nunnery originally envisaged but it worked for the audience.

The four soloists were excellent. Hilary Cronin, soprano, was a somewhat goth and resourceful Pleasure. Jorge Navarro Colorado, tenor, was a wise father loved by his daughters. Hilary Summers’ contralto voice explored a wisdom beyond the domestic role she acted well. Anna Dennis, soprano, excelled as Beauty.

The orchestra of the Early Opera Company, conducted by Christian Curnyn was great. Handel’s beautiful music included arias we know because he recycled them in later works. This was a thoroughly enjoyable performance.

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Ernani by Verdi

Ernani at Buxton International FestivalErnani at Buxton International Festival
Ernani at Buxton International Festival | Genevieve Girling.

This is a splendid production of an opera of great musical power Elvira, our heroine, is loved by three men: her beloved outlawed aristocrat Ernani, her elderly aristocrat uncle Don Ruy Gomez de Silva and the king. In a setting of Spanish family honour and feuds and the wider political intrigues of the Holy Roman Empire there is great drama as well as thwarted loves.

The four soloists all sang wonderfully and their strong and very different voices interwove so well in Verdi’s glorious music. Nadine Benjamin’s powerful soprano was impressive in solos and in duets with Roman Arndt’s strong tenor as Ernani. Alastair Miles used his thrilling bass to perfection as de Silva with his unyielding code of honour. Andre Heyboer’s baritone was commanding as the king who becomes Emperor. The soloists together with the able and talented chorus excelled in the many ensemble pieces. The Orchestra of Opera North conducted by Adrian Kelly was excellent.

The costumes were subdued and fitting, as was the set and lighting. The choreography was controlled and tense. Nothing stood in the way of the powerful narrative conveyed by the music. Expressing so many emotions, this musical tour de force moved with great energy to its tragic conclusion. The audience loved it.

La Tragedie De Carmen, Peter Brook’s adaptation of Bizet’s opera

Niamh O’Sullivan in La Tragédie de CarmenNiamh O’Sullivan in La Tragédie de Carmen
Niamh O’Sullivan in La Tragédie de Carmen | Genevieve Girling

Peter Brook’s adaptation of Bizet’s well-loved opera certainly condenses it. The score is cut, keeping the famous tunes, the orchestra is reduced and only four singing role roles remain. This production focuses on Carmen’s role as a femme fatale. A sign saying ‘Femme Fatale’ hangs over the stage throughout, gaining a question mark with Carmen’s death in the final scene! Carmen appears as a living mannequin who is dressed by the men in her life, which uncomfortably contradicts the energy and defiance in her arias.

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The singers were all accomplished. Niamh O’Sullivan’s sensuous mezzo-soprano was just right as Carmen. Steffan Lloyd Owen had all the swaggering pride of the toreador. The Northern Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Iwan Davies was excellent. The appropriately flexible set consisted of a series of moveable wooden staircases, emphasising the somewhat wooden approach chosen in this production.

To me condensing the opera to this extent drained life from it and rendered it simplistic. The audience were unusually unresponsive until the final applause. Yet nothing could stop the energy and excitement of Bizet’s music.

La Canterina by Joseph Hyden

Dominic Mattos as ApolloniaDominic Mattos as Apollonia
Dominic Mattos as Apollonia | Buxton International Festival

This is a glorious one act romp of an opera. The four soloists poke fun at opera and fortune hunting women singers whilst singing Hyden’s lovely music. Apollonia, the lover of Gasparina (La Canterina) cross dresses as her mother to give her respectability, Hyden’s only cross dressing male role. Apollonia was sung with gusto by Dominic Mattos, countertenor, who clearly also relished the comic acting of that role. Jane Burnell, soprano, was brilliant as the scheming Gasparina, playing off her two other would-be lovers. Don Ettore, a trouser role was ably sung by the mezzo-soprano Helen Maree Cooper, in which role she doubled as the bailiff who nearly confiscated the on-stage chamber ensemble.

Jonah Halton, tenor, was great as Don Pelagio the conceited music teacher infatuated with Gasparina. Falling at one point into a faint from which she could only be revived with diamonds and fanned with fivers, Gasparina ran rings round her suitors even after her schemes were revealed. The Buxton Chamber Ensemble, conducted by Toby Hession, were very much part of the action. This performance was pure fun and the music throughout was highly enjoyable.

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Kleio Quartet

This memorable concert started with a Bach Chorale beautifully played and we knew the rest of the concert would be special. The Kleio Quartet’s playing of Haydn’s String Quartet No 2 in D minor was fresh and exciting, especially in the “hair raising” last movement. The richness and variety within Dvorak’s String Quartet No 13 in G major was revealed afresh. The players were highly attuned to each other and equally sensitive to the music and this made their performance outstanding. Particular praise should be given to the violinist who stepped in at the last minute and played as if he had always been there. A hugely enjoyable concert by a quartet I will look out for in future.

Harp recital by Milo Harper

Milo Harper played music by a number of composers from different eras starting with Scarlatti and Faure. He was brave enough to play Bach’s well know Toccata and Fugue in D minor, which he had transcribed for the harp, and the audience approved! Benjamin Britten’s Suite for Harp Opus 83 was beautifully played. The concert finished with Piece Symphonique, an expressive journey through bereavement, by the great French harpist Henriette Rene. It was wonderful. The concert was made even more enjoyable by the Milo Harper’s explanations of the music and of the workings of harps in general and his particular German harp. This concert took place in the restored Assembly Room in Buxton Crescent with its beautiful ceiling providing a treat for the eyes as well as the ears.

Golda Schultz and Gary Matthewman

This was a concert by two highly accomplished artists: Golda Schultz, a South African soprano and Gary Matthewman, a British pianist. They performed songs by Mozart, Franz Schubert, Clara Schumann and Richard Strauss. The songs, in German, were varied but mainly spoke of love and separation. They were sung and played with great skill and feeling. The large and enthusiastic audience for a short concert demonstrated the esteem in which these artist are held. This was a lovely concert: a powerful voice full of feeling and a sensitive piano accompaniment.

The Boatswain’s Mate by Ethel Smyth

Ethel Smyth was a composer, a writer and a suffragette. She wrote the music and the libretto for this short opera. The overture includes Smyth’s suffragette anthem The March of the Women. Ethel Smyth was hugely popular in her day but her work was largely ignored after her death in 1944. In recent years she has again become popular.

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This is a rollicking comedy of an opera. Our heroine, Mrs Waters, is a pub landlady who runs rings around the two men who wish to marry her and become the landlord. Elizabeth Findon, soprano, really took command in that role which is said to be based on Emmeline Pankhurst. Her hapless suitors, Joshua Baxter, tenor, and Theo Perry, baritone, showed their skill as comic actors as well as singers.

The music is varied including folk tunes and songs with real feeling, as well as comedy. The on-stage musicians, conducted from the piano by Rebecca Warren, really entered into the spirit of the comedy. This performance was good feminist fun.

Anna Reid on ‘A Nasty Little War’

Anna Reid was interviewed by Julian Glover on her book which is subtitled “The West’s Fight to Reverse the Russian Revolution”. She was lucid and informative about a war which stretched from the Arctic to the Pacific and was certainly nasty although far from little, 1917-20. Her research was thorough and wide ranging and her reading of the diaries of those involved from many countries produced insightful anecdotes, many tales of daring do and accounts both tragic and ludicrous. She certainly shed light on this forgotten war and some of her observations illuminated present conflicts. I was one of many who felt inspired to buy the book.

Recital by Roderick Williams and Roger Vignoles

This was a concert about “Knights and Legends”. It was divided into three parts with songs in English, German and French by many different composers and poets. All the songs concerned a chivalrous knight in a remote place, a minstrel and a beautiful lady who may not have been who she appeared to be. Roderick Williams’ warm baritone was powerful and sensitive. Roger Vignoles’ piano accompaniment was just right. It was good to hear two musicians so well attuned to each other, performing so well. The church was packed and the concert was a real treat.

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Buxton International Festival runs until July 21, 2024. Go for the opera but stay for an all-encompassing experience which is quite unlike any other I have experienced. Find a full list of events and book tickets on the website.

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