CLASSICAL MUSIC / Survival of the wettest: Buxton Festival

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The Independent Culture
BUXTON is like an English Wexford: a small town in the middle of idyllic nowhere with a glorious little theatre, a shoestring opera festival that specialises in rare repertory, and a lot of rain. But there the similarity stops. Because for the past few years Wexford has thrived and Buxton has struggled, to the point where one of Opera magazine's correspondents proposed it as a candidate for cultural euthanasia. The Voice of God itself seemed to be calling.

So this year's festival has been a kind of challenge for survival, thrown down with a change of management and musical direction. Riskily, it brought in Roger Vignoles, a distinguished accompanist with no track record as a conductor, to direct Handel's Agrippina from the keyboard. It also brought in Jane Glover to conduct Rossini's Italian Girl in Algiers and announced that from 1993 she will be Buxton's overall artistic director. A third production - Turn of the Screw, staged by Ken Russell, which would have stirred the Buxton waters up a bit - was dropped because of a lack of sponsorship.

The result is a definite success in the Agrippina (director Adrian Slack, designer Dermot Hayes), which deserves an honourable place in the hall of fame of Handel opera rescue jobs. Not that Agrippina hasn't been rescued before, most recently by Nicholas McGeegan on disc. But the opera's profile remains low, despite the fact that its dramatis personnae appear in Robert Graves and Monteverdi.

Agrippina is an imperial matron plotting to get her son Nero on the throne of the Caesars and her husband Claudius out of the bed of Poppaea - lest he find himself too tired to write important speeches for the Senate. Topicality is stressed by the design prominence of a double bed straight off the front page of the Daily Mirror.

And as in life so in opera the situation is semi-serious. Malice, greed and grief all find expression in the score (the middle act has a superb counter-tenor lament) but in a context that doesn't deeply probe the motivation of the characters - who exist in aria-bound isolation of each other - and surrenders logic to laughter.

Modern stage solutions to the ambivalence of this kind of work tend toward the post-modern whimsy of Nicholas Hytner's

Xerxes at ENO; Adrian Slack's production follows suit, although it does so with softer humour. Its female cast handles the coloratura with accomplishment, including Susan Roberts in the title role, Sally Harrison as Poppaea, and an ironically full-bodied Nero (a castrato part) from mezzo Fiona James. The bona-fide men aren't quite so hot, but they include a promising young counter-tenor, Simon Clulow, who has an emergent technique and a bright, direct delivery.

As for Roger Vignoles, his accompanist's temperament tends to follow rather than lead, and there are times when you feel a more driven pace (and more brilliant sound) would pay off. But the spaciousness is filled with balanced textures, cleanly phrased and crystal-clear, which are the hallmarks of refined musicianship.

I wish I could be so enthusiastic about the Italian Girl, in which Jane Glover gets a comparably clean articulation from the orchestra but not the stage, and sadly the spark of what should be high-spirited Rossinian comedy is damp. Italian Girl may be dramatically inconsequential - its storyline strung between Die Entfuhrung and Don Pasquale: feisty European woman colonises harem ruled by half-wit lecher - but it provides assertive roles. And here they get reduced to clumsy routines, fabricated by director Jamie Hayes around a single joke that lasts too long. It feels as though he's trying to equate the turnover of stage ideas with that of musical ideas. But music can repeat and still sound fresh where action can't - unless it's happy to resemble second-rate Gilbert and Sullivan, which is what happens here.

Vocally it's patchy too. Jean Rigby's mesmerically dark mezzo isn't ideal for a title role that needs more sparkle, and Justin Lavender was off-colour the night I heard him, struggling with the high tessitura of the tenor lead. The best thing was the chorus, which is small but with a vocal strength that sounds like it is twice the size.

A strength of the Proms is their ability to expose new music in mixed programmes to big audiences; and thanks to The Planets suite Simon Holt had a full house on Tuesday for the premiere of Walking the River's Roar, an interesting example of experience abstracted into art. The title comes from the sculptor Richard Long who recreates country walks as gallery installations, and it suggests the structural image of an individual voice moving with (but distinct from) some larger flow of sound - in this case a solo viola, given a concertante but not strictly concerto role within an orchestra.

This is a striking idea and immaculately handled on paper, in a score whose craftsmanship is obvious. But in performance there are problems. Holt thins down the orchestra (no violins) to profile the soloist but without recourse to the quality in a viola most amenable to profile: its capacity for deep, sustained resonance. Instead the solo line is swamped in constant, agitated figure work - tiring for the player, Nobuko Imai, and hard on the listener. Yan Pascal Tortelier conducted the BBC Philharmonic rather peremptorily; and the dynamic contours weren't as varied as the score suggests.

There were no such problems in John Tavener's We Shall See Him As He Is, which came to the Proms direct from its premiere at the Chester Festival, with the same forces conducted by Richard Hickox. The dynamic range of this massive hour-long devotional work for chorus and orchestra is extreme, dramatic and intensely powerful. Its language is predictably solemn, Byzantine, non-developmental, derived from self-contained paragraphs of sound that he files, shuffles and plays again like a pack of cards with a brazen disregard for any linking material to make relationships between them.

The only unifying factor is a very limited tonality, based from start to finish on a pedal D. And yes, it is outrageous to construct so grand a piece on pedal Ds, on simple, triadic repetitions and the semi-comic folk modality of belly-dance configurations. A breathtaking audacity. But it succeeds because its innocence is heartfelt and sincere.

I was profoundly moved by everything about this piece, from the impressive stature of the soloists John Mark Ainsley and Patricia Rozario to the dodgy intonation of the chorus. Tavener's music has an all-embracing catholicity: it takes all comers, in performance and in listening. That's a strength too.