CLASSICAL MUSIC / Sex and death in Derbyshire

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The Independent Culture
AS A matter of history, Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth Queen of England never met. But in opera they do: in the tempestuous confrontation - more accurately, regal scrap - that determines the course of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda and exposes the piece for what it is. This turns out to be an amalgam of sub-sexual titillation (the fantasy of two women fighting for the same man) and Jean Plaidy in song, which makes serious theatre only because the song is so intense and the singers (you hope) compelling.

But before the singers open their mouths, the director needs to decide how much Jean Plaidy to take on board. How far the costume pageantry can go. And the problem with Jonathan Miller's new Maria Stuarda, originally staged at Monte Carlo and now at the Buxton Festival, is that it hesitates. The pageantry is vaguely there - this is one opera you can't do in Paul Smith suits, and lavatorial sets aren't Miller's style - but muted. As is the whole tone of the production, which allows itself just one big gesture: at the end, where Mary ascends a celestially lit staircase to her execution like Marguerite wafting to heaven at the end of Faust. Here, at least, you know where Miller stands on his heroine. Otherwise there isn't much to go on, and the burden of the piece is carried by the voices - which come with pedigrees but aren't, in the event, so stunning. Christine Weidinger, an American soprano of the spinto con agilita variety, sings this repertory at the Met and major European houses, but I didn't care for the clotted tone, vague pitch and penetrative but squeezed top register of her Maria. Nor for the angular vibrato of Mariana Cioromila's Elisabetta.

That said, these were voices of greater substance than Buxton has, in the past, been accustomed to. And it was lucky to have them; because earlier this year Buxton's planning fell apart and it looked for a while as though there might not be a festival at all. Buying in two pre-packaged Jonathan Miller productions was an eleventh-hour ruse for survival. And if Maria Stuarda wasn't a thundering success, it came with a travelling companion, Cimarosa's The Secret Marriage, that was.

Originally conceived by Opera North for a private performance at Harewood House, this Marriage played briefly in the Cheltenham Festival before it arrived at Buxton, and it runs by now with a well-lubricated smoothness. A Mozartian comedy without Mozartian genius (which means, of course, that in its own time it was more successful than Mozart), it needs a light but certain touch to register with more than superficial charm; and, in this case, Miller's touch is certain, with a clean, unfussily forensic attitude to character and sharp, responsive singers. Anne Dawson and Mark Curtis make a delightful, Dresden china couple as the lovers. Andrew Shore does the blunt, buffo merchant he was created for, with a nice line in free-wheeling parlando. And the show is stolen by Jonathan Best as the amorous aristocrat, a Baron Ochs-type role which gets remodelled here into a personality more gauche than gross, with the emphatic Counties eccentricity that parliamentary shiresmen cultivate. Almost simpatico.

With vital playing from the Manchester Camerata under Roy Laughlin, it was the perfect piece for Buxton's jewel-like theatre. But I hope it doesn't set a precedent. The reputation of the Buxton Festival was built from its own productions of rare works. An English Wexford. If it settles into life as a receiving house it will surrender its identity, its status, and its interest.

The Proms began explosively last weekend with a semi-staged Elektra which raised all the usual issues of semi-staging: that twilight zone of performance where singers are expected to behave badly in their best frocks and not knock over the conductor. But there was no denying the physical abandon of Marilyn Zschau in the title role: a fiery Julia Migenes look-alike with a broad, beating vibrato but still surprisingly pure of tone in music which reduces most sopranos to a pitch-vague shriek. And there was a superlative Chrysothemis from the American soprano Deborah Voigt, secure and firm with an inviting radiance. Andrew Davis and the BBC SO took time to scale the peaks of the score, a luxury not really allowed by music that declares its full weight from the first bar. But two hours and several stage deaths later, the impact of the playing was immense. An exhilarating start to a season that will need to make the most of its big nights to compensate for rather too many indifferent-looking ones in between.

Glyndebourne, meanwhile, has been slumming grandly with concert performances of Die Lustige Witwe, aka The Merry Widow, at the Festival Hall. A candid note issued to the attending press pointed out that the Widow 'has never been - and is perhaps unlikely to be - staged at Glyndebourne'. Franz Lehar is not their repertory; nor mine, I have to say. But he has qualities as a melodist; his orchestration is adroit; and there is something to be said for presenting the Widow in concert, with the focus on the score and the appalling spoken dialogue replaced by a narration.

But it left two problems. One was that although the fillings-in were written by Tom Stoppard and delivered by Dirk Bogarde (I said this was a grand slum), they reduce the sung characters to little more than musical asides. The widow and her friends are fleshed out by their dialogue. Without it they are empty vehicles for glamorous singers to step into on command - although, in fairness, the extremely glamorous Felicity Lott and Thomas Hampson do it with great style and vocal beauty.

The other problem was Franz Welser-Most. What experience I have of echt-Viennese operetta suggests it benefits from rhythmic freedom and a dose of swank. But Welser-Most conducts the LPO with an ungenerous, four-square reserve: no yielding to the sense of line, the swing, the schmaltz. Welser-Most is Austrian, but needs a drip supply of Wiener blut to do this repertory.

Apart from Glyndebourne, the South Bank this week hosted a festival of its own: the first of a promised annual series called Meltdown which sets out to present contemporary music in the user-friendly context of other disciplines such as dance and cinema. George Benjamin organised this year's content; and one of the highlights came on Wednesday when the LPO squeezed into the QEH for the world premiere of Benjamin's own Sudden Time, a massively presented work that plays with time as a constituent of music and the conflicts that arise between the way we feel it and the way it is: subjective as against objective truth. The writing is all paradox, striving for temporal freedom within the ultimate control of a determined pulse and fragmenting into territorial divisions only to emphasise the cellular coherence of the whole. It builds into perhaps the most impressive, motivated handling of orchestral forces in an output which has always demonstrated an extraordinary control of large forms. And the most telling of its time-tricks is that it compacts such a fecundity of ideas into a duration that, you are astonished to discover, barely exceeds 15 minutes. It feels twice as long; and I don't say that as criticism. Merely as a tribute to the substance, depth and technical accomplishment of an outstanding score.

Buxton, 0298 72190, to Sun 1 Aug.

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