Opera: Comic gem is just the prescription

BUXTON FESTIVAL OPERA HOUSE BUXTON
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The Independent Culture
IT'S BEEN a plus week for opera. Longborough paired the initial parts of its Ring cycle, while Bampton Classical Opera pipped La Scala to the post by reviving Nina, a rare gem by Paisiello in Jeremy Gray's 1930s garden setting. And Buxton paired Donizetti and Suppe - uncle and nephew - in a cheerfully engineered one-act double bill: The Night Bell (Il Campanello di Notte) and The Beautiful Galatea.

Buxton Opera House has a beautifully clear acoustic, and with two racy translations (quips about the Elgin Marbles, ouzo, gout and halitosis), audibility was a clear bonus. In his Bohemian sculptor's studio - Nigel Hook's stylishly shambolic set was a delight - Pygmalion (Alan Oke), abetted by Ganymede, creates a statue, Galatea, and falls for her. Venus brings her to life, and with her taste for the good life (drink, sex, shopping) the statue takes over.

Suppe is a dab hand at switching between aria, spoken scene and small ensemble: so, too, is Donald Maxwell, Buxton's artistic director, at plotting wittily restrained moves and comic gesture. Ganymede's sleep aria and "Grecians" song were gorgeously delivered by mezzo Michelle Walton. Helen Williams's Galatea, launched by a shimmering vocalise, soared to some pungent high notes, though her Carmen-like arabesques were uneven. Alasdair Elliott's art-dealer Midas brought comic antics to the obligatory drinking quartet.

Donizetti's The Night Bell is a far cry from Maria Stuarda (who once took the famous Buxton waters): a Boccaccio-like Parisian vaudeville in which a pharmacist is deprived of his wedding night by a rival who keeps calling in disguise for prescriptions. A late 1940s setting admirably fitted Caroline Clegg's inventive production. Jonathan Best's vexed chemist drew warm sympathy; Mark Stone as canny rival Enrico, though often beneath the note, served up a vivid patter aria; and Michelle Walton entranced as the young wife Serafina.

Next night, hotfoot from Cheltenham, came Music Theatre Wales's sharp staging by Michael McCarthy of Britten's The Rape of Lucretia: restrained, to the point, well lit, with a finely projected chorus duo (Peter Hoare and Tamsin Dives), an able cast (including Yvonne Lea's kindly, sonorous Bianca), and glistening woodwind, keyboard, harp and strings from the MTW players under Michael Rafferty. The Part 2 opening was neatly restored, the rape graphic, yet Ronald Duncan's maligned text never wearied: a measure of the production's quality and concentration.

The Buxton Festival continues until 25 July; box office 01298 72190

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