Luisa Miller, Buxton Opera House

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The Independent Culture

Launching a series of eight operas, Buxton Festival, now in its 32nd year, is surely the most ambitious opera festival in the UK. The first of the rarely performed works in which it specialises, one of two productions created for the delightful little Derbyshire theatre, is Verdi's Luisa Miller. It's a rum plot, loosely based on a watered-down version of a Schiller play, sung here in Italian with small surtitles. The love between Luisa, daughter of the army veteran Miller, and Rodolfo – the Count's son in disguise – is frustrated by a dastardly conspiracy. The Count and his steward, a nasty piece of work called Wurm, threaten Luisa, on her father's life, to renounce Rodolfo.

Without strong singers the weakness of the plot could be a severe drawback. Fortunately, director Stephen Medcalf and conductor Andrew Greenwood have assembled a cast able to overcome the thinness of the narrative. Passions run high with a vocally muscular Rodolfo in John Bellemer, disarmingly touching in his most celebrated number "Quando le sere al placido". In the title role, Susannah Glanville spins a fine line, responsive to the chaste Luisa's terrible situation and to the reactions of those around her. Conveying both warmth and vulnerability she remains, even in ensembles, distinctive in style and texture. David Kempster's Miller displays a russet baritone colouring as attention-grabbing as the scarlet regimental dress to which he remains in thrall. Balint Szabo is an imposing Count, Miroslava Yordanova makes a thrilling widow Federica, with fine use of subtle nuance, and Phoenicia Johnson is a sweet-voiced peasant. Wurm is given an insidiously repulsive portrayal by a bowler-hatted, black-gloved Andrew Slater.

With simple designs by Francis O'Connor, we have another outing for flexible, Ikea-like wooden panels. Coolly lit, they are meant to suggest the simplicity of the Tyrolean countryside and its inhabitants, while a rich red drop represents the Count's more plush surroundings. After a slightly shaky start to the overture, one of the composer's best, the Northern Chamber Orchestra and a well-drilled chorus show plenty of Italianate red corpuscles, bringing intensity to a score fierce in its dramatic edge and thrilling in its theatrical climaxes.

In rep to 25 July (0845 1272190)