Armide/The Fair Maid Of Perth, Buxton Opera House, Buxton

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In his last year as artistic director of Buxton Festival, Aidan Lang has built on his previous success, developing the scope of what is a unique festival in an attractive spa town.

Where else can you hear eight operas over a couple of weeks, choose from 18 literary events featuring high-profile authors chosen by the festival's chairman, Lord Hattersley, and try your hand at well-dressing and dry-stone-walling?

In Frank Matcham's gem-like opera house (heat and cramped seating not withstanding), the festival is producing two French rarities, both mixing passion with the poison of the supernatural world: Gluck's Armide and Bizet's La jolie fille de Perth (The Fair Maid of Perth). Apart from their shared scenarios of love's dreams cruelly shattered, they are poles apart - not least, alas, in the quality of their presentation.

Gluck considered Armide "perhaps the best of all my works", insisting that it must "produce a voluptuous sensation". If a talismanic diamond shield and a golden sceptre play crucial roles, it's that sort of story. A bewitching and vengeful heroine suffers anguish when her attempts to magic with love turn tragic. Robert King conducts the Northern Chamber Orchestra and Festival Chorus in a biting and impassioned account of this enchanting score, bringing out the velvety sensuousness of the slumber scene, and clearly relishing Gluck's evocation of demonic evil.

Lang directs with a sure feeling for the opera's intensity, and has secured, in Rosana Lamosa as Armide, a vocally fleet and roundly characterised seductive sorceress. A sound cast (the largest ever assembled by the festival) produces sparky and sweet-voiced singing, with even the essential smaller roles given depth and dimension. Todd Wilander is affecting as the heroic knight Renaud, while the sterling Frances McCafferty is suitably imposing as Hatred.

The other heroine to emerge from obscurity in Buxton this year is Catherine in The Fair Maid of Perth, Bizet's opera loosely based on Sir Walter Scott's romantic novel. Mike Ashman makes a rough-hewn and risible attempt at drawing characterisation and making a theatrical entity out of the piece.

Despite some jolly set pieces, and colourful ensembles and solo numbers, it's not Bizet at his best. Yvonne Howard's awkwardly over-eager gypsy queen is a long way from Carmen. Mary Hegarty makes a brave but shrill stab at the coloratura role of the coquettish Catherine, and it is a relief when, accused of infidelity, she loses her reason and can warble madly away with impunity. Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts forges clunkily through his part as her suitor, an armourer, and only shows his mettle in his "Serenade". More vocally secure, James Rutherford turns in a laddish performance as the profligate toff who would have his way with Perth's fair maid.

Ashman has limited himself to a silly send-up of what is, admittedly, a weak and inconsequential libretto, to which even the usually skilful translator Amanda Holden could add little. The choreographed movement and dance sequences are just an embarrassment, right from the extraneous action during the overture, and the production is tediously peppered with directorial clichés.

Dark glasses, wall-bar ladders and Elvis impersonations are hardly the stuff of any respectable opera production. Given the work's stifling dependence on mistaken identity and haphazard coincidence, and its total lack of dramatic motivation, it needs a more purposeful and perceptive vision to do justice to the music, making any revival worth the trouble. That the orchestra, under Martin André, manages not to ape the hackneyed business going on on stage, and makes the best of Bizet's score, is a miracle.

Festival continues to 23 July (; 08451 272 190)