Return of Edwardian glamour

Those visiting this year's Buxton festival, says Stephanie Billen, have the extra treat of its famous listed opera house, newly renovated
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The Independent Culture

Visitors to Buxton this weekend can expect a bumper festival with four opera productions including Giuseppe Verdi's rarely performed Un giorno di regno and an impressive literary line-up featuring Melvyn Bragg, John Mortimer and Doris Lessing. But there is an added attraction for festival-goers – the refurbished Edwardian opera house itself. After a long-awaited renovations project, the Peak District's most famous theatre is more beautiful – and more comfortable – than ever before.

The restoration process has not been without its stresses however. A behind-the-scenes visit earlier this year finds theatre director Andrew Aughton wrestling with a host of artistic and practical dilemmas. This is a Frank Matcham theatre and the National Heritage Lottery Fund grant depends on matching his original colours and designs as far as possible. "There are going to be areas where people come in and say, 'Well I can accept it's conservation... but it's not as attractive as what was there before," warns Aughton gazing on the newly applied yet achingly uninteresting green and brown wall paint in the south tower.

Matcham's aesthetic values are evident everywhere. "There are some parts we'd love to alter," says John Wilson, a local councillor on the board of the High Peak Theatre Trust, the opera house management company. "Those horrible urinal-type tiles in the stalls bar – we can't alter those because they are part of the original design." He even has his doubts about the fairytale cupolas that have been erected outside. "I call them Madonna's tits because they are just so outrageously pointed."

Yet Wilson is also a huge fan of the transformation process and believes that the reaction from festival-goers will be overwhelmingly positive. "You know those rare occasions when you go to the theatre and people applaud the sets as the curtain lifts... well I think people are going to want to applaud the theatre when they first come in," he says.

As we put on our hard hats and enter the auditorium, we can see that sparkling gold leaf has replaced the dull, gold paint. New seating has been installed, crumbling plaster repaired and disabled access improved. High up on the scaffolding, conservators are working Michelangelo-style to restore the ceiling paintings of muses, flowers and cherubs. Head conservator Brian Cardy explains: "We've had to remove several layers of dirt, nicotine and varnish. In the past, rather than clean them, they've just painted on top of the dirt. We do about 18 square inches an hour so it has taken several weeks to do one painting".

It feels as if we have descended from heaven into hell as we venture into the orchestra pit, infamous for the small stream running through it. "Essentially, this is an underground stream which we can't stop so we live with it," says Aughton, peering into a dubious puddle of what he terms "gungified water collected over the years". The plan is to build decking over the stream, but orchestra members may care to bring wellies for a while yet.

An examination of Matcham's original intentions for the building reveals intriguing sociological points. The drab south tower hallway, leading from the stalls corridor to the gallery, features a grille through which tickets were passed to the less well-off. On the other side of the wall is a more elaborate kiosk within a mosaic-floored foyer adorned with paintings, marble and gold leaf. This is where the more privileged theatre-goers would arrive. Even the door between the two spaces is polished mahogany on one side and plain paint on the other – an anomaly that the restorers have dared to redress.

The opera house opened in 1903 and attracted such names as Gertrude Lawrence, Gracie Fields and, in 1925, the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. Live shows became rare after the advent of talking pictures, and from 1945 the venue served as a cinema until its closure in the Seventies, run-down and in desperate need of repair.

The High Peak Theatre Trust was formed and work began to save the building. After £500,000 worth of emergency restoration, the Grade II listed theatre reopened in 1979 as an opera house and a location for the Buxton Opera Festival – now an annual attraction with a thriving fringe festival alongside it.

By 1999, it had become clear that the restoration had been inadequate. The external stonework and roof were showing signs of decay and the electrical wiring was in dire need of attention. With the help of almost £1.5 million from the Lottery, local councils and other donors, a new programme of repair began.

For Aughton, who took up his position at the opera house in 1998, there is much more to do, both in terms of the fabric of the building and in the activities that take place there. "We want to look at the active role we play in the community and in the arts environment."

The revival of Matcham's masterpiece coincides with news that the University of Derby has bought Buxton's domed Royal Devonshire Hospital and is involved in development plans for the long-disused Crescent building. The renaissance has been long overdue but all of a sudden, the future for the elegant Derbyshire spa town has never looked healthier.

Buxton Festival to July 22. For details, telephone 01298 70395