Buxton Opera House


IntermezzoRichard Strauss - Intermezzo

Buxton Festival, 2012 | Stephen Barlow, Stephen Unwin, Janis Kelly, Stephen Gadd, Andrew Kennedy, Jonathan Best, Njabulo Madlala, Robert Poulton, Richard Roberts, Colin Brockie, Susanne Holmes, Martha McLorinan | Buxton Opera House - 13 July 2012

Intermezzo is, of course, an opera notoriously based on the real-life domestic circumstances of its composer Richard Strauss and his wife Pauline de Anha, a turbulent but happy marriage between two quite different personalities. The reason we know so much about the nature of their marriage is that Strauss depicted it in frank and some would say vulgar detail in his symphonies and in aspects of his operas. There’s no disguising the fact however that Intermezzo is unprecedented for the level of detail in which the composer’s domestic affairs, specifically two notable incidents, are exposed to the full view of the public. Whether the opera is vulgar or not is open to question and undoubtedly interpretation, but if there’s a case to be made for it, it was made here with the wonderful production at the 2012 Buxton Festival.

Coming after such important works as Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier and Die Frau ohne Schatten, Intermezzo can’t help but appear to be a minor work with a rather trivial subject unworthy of a composer of Strauss’s stature. A light comedy, a farce, a domestic drama of minor disputes and marriage difficulties, played out in short chapters like edited scenes from a movie (cinema an influence to some extent on the work, and reflected in the staging here), played out in music that accompanies and supports conversational arrangements rather than imposes its own expressive presence, Intermezzo hardly seems like a subject that would appeal to the lofty ambitions of Strauss’s regular librettist at this time Hugo von Hofmannstahl. Yet, in taking this unexpected direction with a new librettist, Strauss himself shows himself to be just as ambitious and willing to experiment with a subject and a style that is far from what is traditionally expected of an opera work.

Adapting to this new form, Strauss’s glorious compositions prove to be surprisingly musical and dramatic. It’s a typically detailed score from this composer, attuned to the smallest emotional gestures as well as to the broader ones called for by the farcical situations that ensue when Christine, the temperamental wife of a famous composer, Robert Storch (not much disguising of identities going on there), reads a love letter sent mistakenly to her husband and promptly, to the complete bewilderment and distress of Storch, sues for divorce. Working in another incident drawn from real-life where the lonely Christine - her husband frequently away working and conducting - is deceived about the nature of a friendship she strikes up with a young man who claims he is a baron, but is really looking for someone to pay his bills for him, Strauss balances our sympathies in his depiction of the complex and difficult personality of Christine with flashes of humour and compassion.

Despite the apparent triviality of the subject and autobiographical content that seems a little self-aggrandising - particularly in the manner in which it is richly scored here by Strauss - Intermezzo is by no means vulgar entertainment. It’s thanks to this work that we have real insight into the Strauss household, the personality, temperaments and the passions that fuel the composer’s work, but it’s not entirely self-regarding and self-important. These are fully-fleshed out characters, their personalities, whims, mannerisms and deeper natures expressed with tremendous skill by Strauss. The extraordinarily detailed score may be aligned with a very different kind of dramatic content to the classical subjects of earlier works - to humour, to flashes of wit, jealousy, rage, love and passion rather than the death lust of Salome or the revenge fantasies of Elektra, but really, the scoring is no less precisely nuanced. These are much more human emotions, glorified (perhaps more a little over-glorified) by Strauss’s perceptive, impressionistic swells and rhythms, but it’s honest, it’s witty, it’s human and it’s real.

It’s surprising then that Intermezzo is not more frequently performed on the stage, as it is undoubted much more of a theatrical work than is it musical. The fact that this theatrical conversational drama can come across with such musicality and works so well on the stage however depends entirely on the nature of the production, and in just about every respect, this Buxton Festival production was simply outstanding - fully aware of the potential of the piece and capable of putting it across. The stage design, the costumes and the direction were an absolute joy. Every single scene struck the exact right note, with simple sets that were nonetheless pinpointed with delightful period detail. There was also remarkable precision in the setting of tone and circumstance through the use of lighting, the drama able to slip between a drawing room and a brief encounter on a ski slope with barely a pause for the cinematic intertitles to indicate the scene change. Everything about Stephen Unwin’s direction was perfectly in line with Strauss’s score and the dramatic tone and intent of the work.

Even so, Intermezzo is a work that would still be rather difficult to pull off effectively were it not able to make the characters seem human and sympathetic. In this respect Janis Kelly was simply outstanding as Christine, a tremendously challenging role that despite the surface impression given is actually much warmer and human than just about any other character to be found in Strauss’s work. Utterly mesmerising, her attention to detail was evident not just in the terrific singing, but in her bearing and in the manner and timing of her delivery, which was that of a consummate actress. This was a delightful performance that drew all the potential out of the role, as well as giving something personal to it as well. Stephen Gadd was also exceptionally good as Robert Storch, similarly finding warmth and humour in the personality of the composer, singing the role well and in perfect accord with the performance of Janis Kelly. The two roles are the obviously the most vital, supported well by the reminder of the cast, all of them achieving a wonderful rapport with the fluid performance of the orchestra conducted by Stephen Barlow. Intermezzo was undoubtedly, the most accomplished achievement of this year’s Buxton Festival.

BuxtondoubleJean Sibelius - The Maiden in the Tower
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - Kashchei the Immortal

Buxton Festival, 2012 | Stuart Stratford, Stephen Lawless, Kate Ladner, Emma Selway, Richard Berkeley-Steele, Robert Poulton, Owen Gilhooly | Buxton Opera House - 12 July 2012

Even though they are both very different in style, approach and meaning, there is at least one very obvious common theme between the two exceptionally near-contemporaneous rare one-act operas brought together in Buxton’s “Festival Double Bill” - both clearly deal with young women held captive in a tower by an evil, oppressive figure of power. If Jean Sibelius’s The Maiden in the Tower (Jungfrun i tornet), the composer’s only opera work, is the slighter and more superficial of the two in its treatment of this theme - both in narrative and in musical terms - it’s contrasted nonetheless to good effect in this clever pairing with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsahov’s Kashchei the Immortal, which is characteristically a richer and more complex reading of fantasy fairytale elements for this composer, aligning its themes and concept towards making a very real statement about the political situation in the Russia of its time.

The Buxton Opera production smartly avoids making reference to any early Russian turn-of-the-20th-century social or political messages, which though interesting are far from relevant today and perhaps one of the reasons why the work is so rarely staged outside of Russia. Instead, Stephen Lawless’s direction cleverly links the two works through having the same singers play corresponding/contrasting roles in both works, allowing the characterisation of the earlier Sibelius work to influence the meaning of the Rimsky-Korsakov. Removing the original context of a work and replacing it with another artificial background is of course not an uncommon practice in opera productions, but usually it is achieved through an updating or reworking of the stage setting, period and location. It’s highly unusual to see a work given a different musical background as a basis in this manner but it’s cleverly and most successfully done here in a way that doesn’t distort the deeper meaning of the two works.

It’s probably the Sibelius work however that gains the most from this double-bill enhancement. The Maiden in the Tower has a very simple storyline set at a children’s birthday party, although one immediately thinks of Oscar Wilde’s fairytale ‘The Birthday of the Infanta‘ and how dark and twisted that can be. The Maiden in the Tower does indeed set out with just such an intent, emphasised during the short overture in this production where the bailiff’s son, at his birthday party, is seen cruelly twisting off a doll’s head and furtively peeking up its skirt before donning a demon mask, effectively summarising his character is a few brief stokes - as does Sibelius in the score. When the bailiff’s son’s advances are rebuffed by a young uninvited guest, the boy has her locked away in a tower intent on having his wicked way with her. The girl’s reputation is mocked by the other guests, but her young boyfriend discovers the truth and tries to rescue her, fighting the bailiff’s son. A governess intervenes and releases the girl and the party continues without the birthday boy.

As a version of the Britten-like theme of the corruption of innocence, The Maiden in the Tower is not a terribly complex or insightful affair, the dialogue straightforward and declarative, and it’s not scored in any particularly subtle way either by Sibelius. It does however sound ravishing, with a Tchaikovsky-like Romanticism in its symphonic and folk-tinged arrangements which give strong dramatic punctuation to the Cherevichki-like folk and fairytale elements, with some wonderful chorus work that strikes those moments home even further. The piece is however given a little more edge from the stage direction which plays on the awkward age of innocent children approaching sexual awareness and makes the most of the singers evidently looking older than the children they are playing. This takes on another layer of depth when placed alongside Kashchei the Immortal. Is the kind of childish devilment and humiliation that has been inflicted at an early age capable of developing into something rather more unsettling and dangerous in later life?

Kashchei the Immortal, despite its more obviously fantastical setting, does actually suggest that this could indeed be the case with its evil magician. Played by the same actor/singer who played the bailiff’s son in The Maiden in the Tower, Kashchei has not only imprisoned a princess in his tower (Kate Ladner again the unfortunate captive), but he has brought-up his daughter Kashcheyevna to seduce and kill men in order to avenge himself “for past humiliations”. Seeing in his magic glass (an old flickering TV set here) the threat of the Princess’s lover Ivan, he dispatches the Storm Wind to warn Kashcheyevna, but his daughter finds herself unable to carry out her evil deeds despite having Ivan at her mercy. The Storm Wind, who had been held captive by Kashchei, spirits Ivan to the castle to rescue the Princess. Realising that she is in love with Ivan, who rejects her, Kashcheyevna weeps, and in displaying such emotion she brings about the destruction of Kashchei.

As well as using the same singers for similar roles, the connection between the two works in this production is evident in the subtle transformation of the same set used in both pieces and the connecting element of the demon mask, but nothing else is over-emphasised to the extent that the shadow of Sibelius lingers over Rimsky-Korsakov’s work. It does however feel appropriate that the moral of goodness triumphing over the seemingly immortal power of evil and being rewarded as promised in childhood stories does indeed be seen to be true in later adult life. In an additional twist at the conclusion however, the production realistically considers that such experiences do not come without a human cost. It’s not just “happily ever after”. The Princess, released from her captivity, the cruel ruler destroyed, curls up beside the defeated Kashchei as if having endured the captivity, she is unable to recognise freedom or in some way her inherent goodness sympathises with his predicament. It’s a truthful touch that shows that the situation has been realistically considered just as thoughtfully as Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration of the work itself with its underlying real-world meaning.

The performances in this production were simply marvellous across the board, the five main singers - Kate Ladner, Emma Selway, Richard Berkeley-Steele, Robert Poulton and Owen Gilhooly - equally strong, alive to the possibilities within these enhanced characters, giving them perfect expression in the singing and in the acting. The Northern Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Stuart Stratford also delivered a stirring performance that played to the strengths of these two very different musical works in a way that also made the most of their complementary contrasts.

JephthaGeorge Friedrich Handel - Jephtha

Buxton Festival, 2012 | Harry Christophers, Frederic Wake-Walker, James Gilchrist, Susan Bickley, Gillian Keith, Jonathan Best, William Purefoy, Elizabeth Karani | Buxton Opera House - 11 July 2012

Staging a Handel oratorio is an attractive proposition, since they often contain some of his most beautiful and stirring compositions in a much freer and more varied form outside of the restrictions and conventions of the Italian opera seria, but they inevitably present certain challenges when it comes to dramatising them for the stage. Works such as Theodora and Belshazzar are indeed semi-dramatic, their religious subject sometimes the only reason preventing them being staged as operas due to English censorship restrictions of the time on the staging of biblical subjects, and they have been successfully adapted as staged opera works, as even has Messiah. Categorised as a “dramatic oratorio in three acts”, Jephtha however doesn’t actually have all that much happening in the way of action, but the qualities of the music in Handel’s final oratorio, finished while partially blind and losing his sight completely soon after, mean that it’s certainly worth trying to find a way to present it to a modern audience.

The libretto by Dr Thomas Morell presents the biblical story of Jephtha from the Book of Judges in the oratorio style of repeated declamations and pronouncements, the devout sentiments expressed in a poetic fashion with only small sections of recitative to link them together. Not a lot actually happens in the relatively straightforward story, where Zabul asks his brother Jephtha to lead the Israelites into battle against the Ammonites. If successful, Jephtha will continue to rule and he vows that if God helps him, he will sacrifice the first thing he sees on his return. It’s his daughter Iphis however who he encounters, come to meet her father. Jephtha agonises over what has happened, but intends to carry out his promise, only to be prevented at the last moment by the intervention of an angel. The biblical story is filled out (and given a happy ending) by Morell by way of Euripides, with some scenes featuring Iphis’s beloved Hamor, and Jephtha’s wife Storge lamenting the premonitions she has had of what is to befall her family.

Like opera seria work from this period, it’s difficult to stage such scenes naturalistically, and particular so in a work that was created as an oratorio, where not only is there much expression of interiorised emotions, but those expressions are particularly ‘elevated’, by which I mean relating to religious convictions and conceptual ideas more so than simply reacting to circumstances. A conventional stage setting won’t work, and might even work against such a particular means of expression, so director Frederick Wake-Walker’s approach is appropriately conceptual. Initially, the staging seems to take a leaf from the book of Christof Loy, the stage bare but for five chairs, the singers dressed formally, taking their places as if for a rehearsal of a performance, walking forward to sing from the stand placed at the front of the stage, with some brief interaction between them. The idea of it being a performance remains throughout, coming through again at the presentation of flowers at the end, but there are other elements at play here that are more difficult to pin down.

It’s left to the chorus - an important element in Handel oratorios, and the principal attraction for staging such works - to take on the task of enhancing the meaning or deeper expression in this Buxton Festival production of Jephtha. Dressed in black robes, with ruffs around their neck, quite what their movements and placements on the stage mean can’t really be defined, but in many respects, they are the embodiment of the scenery, the sentiments and the whole mood of the piece. I know that sounds like grasping for meaning, but meaning is there for the individual to find in the work and its presentation, and if you are attempting to express dark thoughts and “scenes of horror”, then this approach is much more appropriate than setting it in a countryside location or some such naturalistic location. The measure of whether this approach works or not is in whether the full force of the work comes across without the need for literalism (which would be difficult to find in this work in any case), and there was no question that it served Handel and Morell’s work exceptionally well.

Just as vital, if not evidently more so, is the musical accompaniment and the singing, and in that respect, the staging supported what was being expressed here and didn’t detract from it. The playing from the Orchestra of the Sixteen in the pit conducted by Harry Christophers was marvellous, finding the drama in the music itself and working in accord with the singers. The role of Jephtha has the widest variety of emotions, from angry declamation and fervent passion though to complete dejection and soft humility, and James Gilchrist matched the tone and delivery for each sentiment perfectly. This is a wonderful work however for the variety of voices and in how they work together side-by-side in individual sections, but also in unison in duets and trios. Susan Bickley’s Storge, Gillian Keith’s Iphis and countertenor William Purefoy’s Hamor were all outstanding in this respect, each fully characterising their roles through the voice even more so than through the expression of somewhat obscure pronouncements. Jonathan Best and Elizabeth Karani in the smaller roles of Zebul and Angel fitted wonderfully into this arrangement, an arrangement of voices and expression that is amplified by Handel’s choral writing, delivered passionately by the Festival Chorus.

OlimpiadeAntonio Vivaldi - L’Olimpiade

La Serenissima, 2012 | Adrian Chandler & James Johnstone, Richard Williams, Stephen Gadd, Rachael Lloyd, Sally Bruce-Payne, Louise Poole, Marie Elliott, Mhairi Lawson, Jonathan Gunthorpe | Buxton Opera House - 11 July 2012

You might think that the Olympic games would be a perfect subject for a Vivaldi sprint, but the composer’s approach to this frequently covered libretto by Metastasio actually adopts a pace more akin to a marathon - which I suppose is an appropriate description for a lengthy opera seria. Thankfully, the directors for this Buxton Opera Festival production were better able to resist the predictable sporting cliches than myself with L’Olimpiade, all the more impressive since everyone else is tying cultural events with considerably less relevance into the London 2012 celebrations.

L’Olimpiade features the usual Metastasian setting of star-crossed lovers, unable to be with the one they love - usually on the dictate of a cruel and selfish king - their lives made even more unbearable by twists of chance, circumstance and no small amount of coincidence in work that has a convoluted backstory you need to be aware of before the opera even starts. Eventually however the king is persuaded to come to his senses and in his wisdom put everything back into the natural order, joining or reuniting the distressed lovers into the arms of their loved ones. It’s the setting of the Olympic games however that puts an interesting if somewhat notional spin on proceedings in L’Olimpiade, one of the most covered Metastasio librettos.

In the Buxton production, the set is staged as if for a wedding, but it looks like a gloomy affair that no amount of coloured balloons is going to enliven. The reluctant bride-to-be is Aristea, and the reason for her despair (despair is not too strong a word to describe the fevered outpourings expressed in typically overwrought da capo arias) is that her father, Clistene, the King of Sicione, has promised her to the winner of the Olympic games. She however is in love with the super athlete Megacle, but her father has a dislike for Atheneans, and has banished him from the kingdom. In the substantial backstory prior to the opera, Megacle has however been rescued during his exile from bandits by Licida, the son of the King of Crete. Owing his life to his new friend, Megacle agrees to enter the Olympic games under Licida’s name, unaware that the prize he is competing for on behalf of his friend is his lost love.

That’s just the simple outline, but being a Pietro Metastasio libretto, there are evidently other complications, not least of which is Argene’s despair (yes, yet more despair) that the man she loves, Licida, has abandoned her (again by regal decree, since she is not of noble birth) and now has his desires set on marrying Aristea. There’s also a situation in the past where Clistene had ordered the death of his own son - Aristea’s twin brother - after a fortune-teller warned that his son would one day attempt to kill him, but, as you can imagine, the only reason for introducing this element is to ensure a nice twist at the end when the son is revealed to be alive and actually turns out to be… well, you get the picture. Nothing remotely naturalistic, just a wonderful opera seria situation for opportunities to decry one’s woes at the cruel whims of fate in long elaborate repetitive arias

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Vivaldi’s approach to this once very popular libretto is not the typical energetic Vivaldian style, although those familiar fast-paced rhythms evidently have their place here, but the work - one of the composer’s later works from 1734 in the then fashionable Neapolitan style - is rather more varied in its efforts to suit the finer sentiments and the sorrow expressed throughout. The majority of those sentiments are delivered in solo arias or ariosos, with only a little chorus work, the variety being in the tempos and the fine melodies Vivaldi creates for them. There is one beautiful duet that stands out from this however, Act I’s ‘Ne’ giorni tuoi felice‘, between Megacle and Aristea, sung wonderfully here by Louise Poole in the castrato role of Megacle, and Rachel Lloyd as Aristea.

L’Olimpiade is a work that relies on the quality of the singers to give its improbable story some character and the singers here helped make that possible, Sally Bruce-Payne’s Argene and Stephen Gadd’s Clistene in particular standing out, but really, this was a concerted effort with the right range of voices to fit the roles. Richard Williams’ stage dressing was basic, but the choice of setting, notionally present-day, was perfect, the whole event looking like one of those wedding parties where everything kicks-off as old grievances are brought to light. Rare though they are, Vivaldi operas are notoriously difficult to stage and this set the tone perfectly and in a much more appropriate location than some sports stadium. With La Serenissima’s Adrian Chandler on violin and James Johnstone on harpsichord driving those Vivaldi rhythms on period instruments, the whole thing came together wonderfully, showing that there’s life in these old works yet.