OPERA / A right royal flush: David Fanning on a Miller double-bill at Buxton . . .

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APPARENTLY undeterred by the well-publicised departure of its musical director, Jane Glover, this year's Buxton Festival has taken a pragmatic line, and, at least so far as its traditional brace of operatic productions goes, it has done rather well out of it.

By Buxton standards neither Donizetti's Maria Stuarda nor Cimarosa's Secret Marriage is an adventurous choice. Both are well enough known to opera buffs and yet sufficiently unhackneyed to justify their revival at a festival of this kind (the Cimarosa actually played here back in 1981). And in going down the co-production road, Buxton is making an eminently sensible tactical withdrawal.

Maria Stuarda is no masterpiece. The language is standard early 19th-century Italian rent-a-cliche, with not even the saving grace of a memorable show-stopping aria. And, with the partial exception of Mary's final defiance, there is no depth to any of the characters. Early Verdi is almost subtle by comparison.

Roni Toren's sets are simple but effective, even if Fotheringay Park looks more like Hunding's cottage - a gutted palace chamber with a token tree growing in it. And Jonathan Miller's production, as seen in Monaco and here re-staged by Karen Stone, resists the temptation to interpret, simply letting the emphasis remain where Donizetti clearly intended it, with the singers.

In the American Christine Weidinger (Mary) and Romanian Mariana Cioromila (Elizabeth), Buxton has two formidable prima donnas. Neither is ravishingly beautiful of voice, but both have agility and power to burn, both have commanding stage-presence, and both have trump cards up their sleeves - Weidinger some thrilling crescendos way above the stave, Cioromila some stentorian chest-tones, calculated to wither the hardiest of courtly sycophants. Of the men only Matthew Best's Talbot, a stentorian bass-baritone, can compete on equal terms, though Reinaldo Macias's Leicester, the unfortunate filling in the royal sandwich, makes a brave stab at a fiercely demanding tenor role. The Royal Northern College of Music Opera Chorus are a superb assembly of courtiers, and German conductor Guido Johannes Rumstadt obtains far more vivid and detailed playing from the Manchester Camerata than the rum-ti-tum score deserves.

Miller's idiosyncratic touch is far more in evidence in the Cimarosa. Indeed, you could go to a good many comic operas before finding one as detailed and imaginative in its characterisation as this. Here is a half-deaf father, powerfully sung and irresistibly acted by Andrew Shore in a broad Yorkshire accent, Brian Glover-style; here is an unscrupulous would-be son-in-law in Jonathan Best, sounding like John Shirley-Quirk and looking like a cross between Alan B'Stard and Upper-Class-Twit-of-the-Year; here are a pair of secretly married lovers straight out of sitcom land (a radiant-voiced Anne Dawson and a pleasantly lyrical Mark Curtis), a much-maligned elder sister in Kate Egan, and a very nearly over-the-top maiden-aunt in Tamsin Dives. All this is lapped up with almost embarrassing relish by an audience that seems to be catching up on decades of missed TV comedy-watching.

The main problem with Miller's approach is diminishing returns, particularly as the music wends its Mozart-without-the-memorable-bits way towards the end of a long evening. But such is the quality of the singing, backed up by Roy Laughlin's energetic and enthusiastic conducting, that only those terminally allergic to the Miller style will be able to resist.

Further perfs: Cimarosa 21, 23, 25, 29, 31 July; Donizetti 22, 24 28, 30 July. Buxton Opera House box office: 0298 72190