REVIEW OF THE BUXTON FESTIVAL

Opera BUXTON FESTIVAL Buxton Opera House
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The Independent Culture
Buxton Festival has carved out a reputation as a haven for neglected opera. Unjustly or justly neglected has sometimes seemed a matter of indifference, and the thought has occurred that it should be possible to pick less arcane works, without sacrificing the cachet of connoisseurship. This year Buxton has done just that, with Monteverdi's Ulysses and Britten's Turn of the Screw, both of which work particularly well in the spa's intimate Edwardian opera house.

Gods descending in chariots, ships transformed into rocks, three noblemen simultaneously slain by a magic bow and arrow - by 1640s standards Monteverdi's demands aren't extravagant, but they certainly call for some ingenuity. Buxton's co-production with Opera North manages the visual side pretty well. Tim Hatley's set is a two-tier affair, with separate arenas for nobility and plebs (the gods commuting freely in between) and on-stage continuo. Costumes are an effective mix of modern and magical, and on the whole the extravagances are made into good theatre, which is far more important than realism. Just as important is to strike a balance between the supernatural goings-on and the very human anguish of Ulysses' faithful Penelope, as their long separation leaves her hardly daring to trust in the reality of their reunion.

Although the part sounds uncomfortably low for her, Jean Stilwell makes Penelope believable and touching; Glenn Winslade as the returning hero is equally sensitive to the gradual increase of dramatic intensity; while, among other roles, Clive Bayley's rich bass is outstanding, the Romanian tenor Valentin Jar is perfectly cast as the glutton Irus and Mark Curtis makes more than might be expected of the earnest shepherd Eumaeus.

Monteverdi's musical declamation is cannily varied, and the large-scale dramatic accumulation is underpinned at every stage by the texture of the vocal writing. There is even more to be savoured here than Buxton's admirable cast gave us, but the acting was generally convincing, under Annabel Arden's direction, and Harry Bicket led a fine team of musicians from the harpsichord.

Dramatic accumulation is the name of Britten's game too. Good teamwork from Pimlico Opera, with direction and design by Jonathan Cocker, allowed that and the pervasive sickly sweetness of The Turn of the Screw to register. Yet, despite the vitality and relish of Wasfi Kani's conducting, there is even more refinement and euphony to be coaxed out of the orchestra, and the evening would have been struggling without the Canadian soprano Ingrid Attrot's beautifully sung and movingly acted Governess. It is a gift of a role, of course, but only to a singer with uncommon theatrical sensibility and musical intelligence.

n Further performances: Monteverdi, 20, 22, 27, 29 July; Britten, 21, 28 July. Opera House, Buxton, Derbyshire. Booking: 01298 72190

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