This year’s Buxton Festival opened with a look back at the past. A musica, set to works from the 1930s by Ivor Novello, presented a charming story featuring the activist and pacifist Vera Brittain (mother of the late Labour politician Shirley Williams), who lived in Buxton during her teenage years. Unlike other young ladies of the upper middle class she couldn’t stand “superficial men” and had “no intention of marrying a country house”. Her role, incisively sung by Audrey Brisson under the baton of Iwan Davies, who compiled the score, built up to her collapsing in horror when her brother Roland is killed in action during World War I.
A moving tribute to a local heroine, and very different from Bellini’s La Sonnambula on the second night. Amina, the eponymous somnambulist of this charming nonsense opera, is the adopted daughter of the local mill owner. She sleepwalks into the wrong bed, thereby risking her impending marriage to the eligible Elvino. Bellini wrote it in 1831 at the age of 29, before dying just four years later. Its bel canto style requires a singer who can span the range from mezzo-soprano to high coloratura. Fortunately Buxton cast the Chinese soprano Ziyi Dai as Amina, and she sang with gloriously precise coloratura.
The story is that Elvino was previously engaged to Lisa, proprietress of the local inn. In this production this is a works canteen for a business in which Elvino has a management role. A stranger, who turns out to be Count Rodolfo, arrives and Lisa puts him up, but the dreamy Amina sleepwalks into his bedroom and enters his bed. When the locals discover her in this compromising position, the wedding is called off.
But Rodolfo comes to the rescue explaining it has nothing to do with him and is all an innocent mistake. Elvino refuses to accept this, demands proof, and decides to go back to Lisa. Finally, Amina’s adopted mother produces a handkerchief (in this production a pair of knickers) that Lisa has dropped in Rodolfo’s room. The clearly innocent Amina is then woken from her sleepwalking state and reunited with Elvino. In Buxton’s production, the director Harry Fehr treats Elvino as a rather priggish young man, and ends the opera with an unconventional modern twist.
Under the baton of Adrian Kelly the music showed its charm and energy, and the singing was excellent. Apart from Ziyi Dai’s beautifully sung Amina, tenor Nico Darmanin made a strong Elvino, and Ellie Neate (who sang the innocent role of Aminta’s beloved Elisa in the next opera) a sexy and well-sung Lisa, with a terrific stage presence. With the rich bass of Simon Shibambu carrying authority as Rodolfo, along with Ann Taylor as Amina’s adopted mother, and Jacob Bettinelli in the bass role of the lovelorn Alessio, this fine cast gave Bellini’s opera a welcome and warm-hearted performance.
The following night saw Alexander the Great clothed in 18th century military costume, along with pastoral images of sheep and cooling streams on the backdrop, in a charming performance of Mozart’s early opera Il re pastore (The shepherd king). The story is that Alexander has just conquered Sidon in Phoenicia (now Lebanon), and is determined to find the rightful heir to the throne. This turns out to be Aminta the shepherd, and Alexander’s plan involves marrying this noble paragon of young manhood to Tamiri, daughter of the deposed tyrant. A great idea, except that Tamiri is in love with the local aristocrat Agenore, and Aminta with a young lady named Elisa. The plot involves Agenore keeping Aminta and Elisa apart, but all ends well in this rather gentle opera that functions more as a series of arias, rather than the dramatic ensembles that enliven Mozart’s later works. The travesti role of Aminta was beautifully sung by Katie Coventry, with mannerisms admirably fitting those of a young man.
Altogether a fine three nights of opera to start the Buxton Festival, and congratulations to its CEO Michael Williams, who also co-produced the first musical item.
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