Buxton Festival, Buxton Opera House, Buxton

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The Independent Culture

In its first 25 festivals, Buxton has served Handel and Donizetti well. With these new productions, they have both notched up half a dozen operas apiece. Semele is a relatively familiar work. Not so Maria Padilla. Opera Rara gave a concert performance of it 30 years ago and Dorset Opera staged it in 1988, but this is its first professional staging in Britain. It is a late work, premiered at La Scala in December 1841. It was well received but had the misfortune to be followed in the same season by Nabucco, Verdi's first big success. It soon fell out of the repertory.

Maria becomes the secret wife of King Pedro I of Spain, who is also contracted to a political marriage with the French princess, Bianca. The original outcome of the imbroglio was that Maria would commit spectacular suicide in front of Pedro and Bianca. The Austrian censors would not allow suicide, so a happy ending had to be substituted, in which Blanca is repudiated and Maria enthroned. That denouement sits uneasily with the darkly dramatic character of the opera. It focuses on Maria's relations with her sister Inez and her father, Don Ruiz, who is driven close to madness by grief and rage. The scene in which Maria tries to rescue him from this obsession is by far the most original and moving.

There is much in the score that is genuinely dramatic, including some magnificent duets and some extraordinarily inventive orchestrally accompanied recitatives. Under Andrew Greenwood, the cast and the Northern Chamber Orchestra give it an appropriately full-blooded and fast-moving performance. There is some splendidly committed singing, above all from Brenda Harris as Maria and Victoria Simmonds as Inez, and Justin Lavender makes much of Don Ruiz. Donald Pippin's English translation is rather leaden, and it is a pity that Aidan Lang's production is dull and that the set does so little to help the drama. Yet this resuscitation is long overdue.

A revival of John Copley's production of Semele at Covent Garden coincides with this new one by Stephen Langridge. While Copley's is utterly conventional and pointlessly expensive, Langridge treats this wonderful work as a contemporary parable about the pitfalls of instant celebrity.

The opening is not too promising, but once Semele (Helen Williams) has been taken up to heaven by Jupiter (Tom Randle), the fun begins. Langridge and Williams bring Act I to a brilliant end by singing "Endless Pleasure" as an airhead's chat-show interview, while her friends and family watch it below on television. Jupiter then turns "Endless Pleasure" into a brand name for swimwear. The TV gag is repeated at the end of the opera, when Jupiter is interviewed waving to the audience and clutching the dead Semele's offspring, baby Bacchus.

In between, there are plenty of excellent jokes, good singing and, in Act III, an intense and tragic climax to the drama, when Semele insists, fatally, that Jupiter reveal himself in his divine form. Williams and Randle give consummate dramatic performances, with Williams throwing off her two coloratura arias with power and precision. Randle also turns in a beautifully decorated version of the show's most famous song, "Where'er you walk".

Natascha Petrinsky doubles convincingly in the roles of Juno and Ino, Semele's sister. So does Michael George, as both Cadmus and Somnus, the drunken and sleepy chemist, while Angharad Gruffydd Jones makes a positive impression as Iris, Juno's sidekick. Finally, the Symphony of Harmony and Invention under Harry Christophers relishes the range of Handel's orchestral textures, even if the harpsichord is sometimes intrusive.

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