Friday 25 May 2012

The Buxton Festival, a personal history

The recent death of Malcolm Fraser one of the founders of the Buxton Festival, has set me thinking about my experience of the early days of the festival.

Being as I went to University in Manchester and had relatives living in Stockport, visits to Buxton were quite common. So the Buxton Festival was of great interest. The Festival was founded by in 1979 by Anthony Hose (then head of music at Welsh National Opera) and Malcolm Fraser (who lectured at the Royal Northern College of Music). Hose and Fraser were both highly involved in the productions with the Manchester Camerata in the pit.

Though, in fact, it came too late for me to take full advantage of, as by 1979 I was working in Scotland. But the combination of unusual opera and the restored Frank Matcham opera house were too much to resist. We went to the first festival and saw Lucia di Lammermoor. And yes, in 1979 Lucia was relatively unusual repertoire especially as they used a modern edition so it was the first time I had been able to hear the piece in something like the original keys. This was the first time the work had been presented complete in this form in the UK. And, yes, the opera house was fabulous too.

In those days the festival was themed and, I think, that first festival had Sir Walter Scott as its theme. There were just two operas, the second being one by Maxwell Davies. I was rather sad that they did not have the courage to attempt Sullivan's Ivanhoe, but then no-one seems to have the courage for that.

We returned in 1980 for Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet (an opera which we quickly rechristened Omlette) with a stunning performance from Thomas Allen in the title role. Alas, no-one seems to have asked him to record it, which is a profound shame. They had the courage of their convictions, thank goodness, and did the original happy ending. Berlioz's Beatrice et Benedict was the other opera, it also garnered good reviews with Philip Langridge and Ann Murray in the lead roles, but we didn't run to going to see two operas.

We missed the next few years, Cimarosa (Il matrimonio segreto), Kodaly (Hary Janos), Vivaldi (Griselda) and Gounod (La Colombe) just didn't quite seem worth the travel but I do now regret not having taking the opportunity to see a fully staged version of Hary Janos,  the first (and perhaps only) UK staging of the complete piece.

1984 saw me living in London (a lot closer than Scotland where I had been working) and we returned to the festival to see both Cherubini's Medee and Cavalli's Jason. Medee was played by Rosalind Plowright in a wonderfully dramatic manner, but the production seemed more interested in blood and thunder than the classical verities which inspired Cherubini. It was the first time that the work had been staged in the UK using the original French dialogue rather than the Italian recitative, so the festival continued to break new ground. The performance cemented my preference for doing 19th century French opera with spoken dialogue where appropriate, rather than using recitative.

1985's operas by Piccini and Galuppi failed to attract me. But 1986 had Handel's Ariodante and Purcell's King Arthur. Ariodante remains one of the touchstones in my catalogue of Handel productions, a living example of how not to stage opera seria. It opened with Ginevra in her bath, playing with a toy duck (a silver one of course) and from then on, every scene had some sort of 'entertainment' to ensure that the punters did not get bored during the long arias. Ariodante (Eirian James in excellent form) at one point had to sing whilst reclining on a piece of audibly moving scenery. But the real low point was Scherza infida where behind Ariodante appeared a double bed and Polinesso (James Bowman) stripped down to boxer shorts and wrist watch (the costumes were nominally 18th century period) and made vigorous love to Dalinda during the aria. King Arthur seemed to have also suffered from a lack of faith by the director as Dryden's play was so cut to the bone it made even less sense than usual and left King Arthur (Alan Bates, if memory serves me correct) with very little to do at all.

We had another gap after that as the operas chosen did not quite appeal and our recent experiences with stagings had made us a little wary. But in 1990 there was Rossini's Tancredi (still my only sight of the work on stage), again in a rather disappointing production and with a tenor who came full of promise but seemed to fail to deliver. They used the revised, tragic, ending which just did not seem to make sense with the jolly music that had gone before.

In 1992 there was change. The original founders had now both left, but an interim season produced the highly imaginative combination of Handel's Agrippina (directed from the harpsichord by Roger Vignoles) and Rossini's Italian Girl in Algiers (conducted by Jane Glover), the latter with Jean Rigby in sparkling form despite being heavily pregnant (which added an interesting frisson to the plot). The production of the Handel opera was a big improvement on 1986, but still failed to catch fire.

Somewhere after this festival there was a loss of nerve (or perhaps even before). A possible programme proposed by Jane Glover was not gone ahead with because it was felt to be not safe enough, or at least that's what was reported. Anyway 1993 saw Donizetti's Maria Stuarda and Cimarosa's The Secret Marriage.

It is one of the miracles of the festival's present form, that in the late 1990's something of this nerve came back thanks to changes in the festival board. This confidence is noticeable in the way the number of operas performed rocketed, from two in 1998 to six in 2002. Aiden Lang took over as festival director in 2000 (I think) and spent seven years in the job; since then the festival hasn't looked back.

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