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The best of fizzy Buxton - investing much imagination

Like Grange Park Opera and Garsington Opera, the almost three-week long Buxton Festival, founded in 1979, is absolutely vital to the limited British operatic calendar. A famous late Victorian spa just south of Manchester and planned with Bath in mind, Buxton boasts, beside the neo-classical grandeur of the Duke of Devonshire’s huge hospital dome, the Palace Hotel, the Crescent, and various thermal and cold baths, English theatre architect Frank Matcham’s 1903 gem the Buxton Opera House, though, despite its name, this is almost too intimate for opera. In programming Buxton has always gone in for the unconventional and new works, including composers like Piccinni, Grétry, and last year Lortzing’s Der Wildschütz (The Poacher). But financial pressure this year cut back the number of operas from eight to six - of which Mendelssohn’s Camacho’s Wedding was given in concert, and Mitridate, Orlando, and Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse were borrowed touring shows.
 Artistic director Andrew Greenwood, who first distinguished himself as chorus master of the Welsh National Opera (WNO) in its 1980s glory days, conducted the main work, Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia from 1833, with characteristic care for the singers and a strong idiomatic sense of the piece’s strange mix of bleak fatalism and cruel absurd jollity. Stephen Medcalf’s modern-dress production, designed by Francis O’Connor to suggest conspiratorial Venetian restaurants and collonades, was efficient and tautly choreographed rather than atmospheric. Mary Plazas sang decently but lacked the charisma that would have developed the conflicting emotions within the title role. David Soar’s Alfonso was crisply potent. American tenor John Bellemer’s Gennaro suggested warm desperation. The most interesting vocalizing came from Bulgarian Miroslava Yordanova’s Orsini. But none of the music stayed long in the memory - though in its theatrical alertness the opera interestingly anticipates Verdi.
 Giles Havergal’s stylish Edwardian-looking production of Messager’s 1898 comedy Véronique was much more accomplished and entertaining - its witty lightness of romantic touch perfectly matched in memorable, well-judged and thoroughly practical melodiousness. The entertaining English translation was by Kit Hesketh-Harvey. This story of disguises and conspiratorial couplings was well told thanks to Leslie Travers’s designs which reflected Havergal’s taste for monochrome clarity when he was in charge of the famous Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre for almost 40 years (in partnership with Philip Prowse). The staging was very effectively choreographed by Tim Claydon, fluid and imaginative. Wyn Davies, also originally from WNO, conducted with real affection and dash.
 But what really distinguished the performance was the casting. Donald Maxwell, Peter Stein’s Falstaff and Iago for WNO, was a brilliantly exuberant florist Coquenard - every word turned to perfection and making a charismatic impression - perhaps glad to be back on stage after some years in charge of the London Opera Studio. Yvonne Howard as Countess Ermerance, aunt of the rich HélPne (alias Véronique) whom Mark Stone’s spendthrift Florestan has been told he must marry to avoid a debtor’s gaol, matched Maxwell’s security and bonhomie. Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks was very funny as the amorous policeman Loustot. Above all, Victoria Joyce in the title role was a model of the delicious irresistible charm and musicality without which performing this kind of soufflé would be completely pointless. If only baritone Mark Stone had sung with a sweeter timbre and been equally conscious of the need to woo his audience, the production - though decidedly old-fashioned - would have been ideal.

Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia. Premiere July 10 (performance of July 14 reviewed). Conductor: Andrew Greenwood, Production: Stephen Medcalf, Design: Francis O’Connor, Lighting: John Bishop, Cast: Mary Plazas (Lucrezia Borgia), David Soar (Alfonso), John Bellemer (Gennaro), Miroslava Yordanova (Orsini), Donald Maxwell (Astolfo), Jonathan Best (Gubetta) etc

Messager: Véronique. Premiere July 11 (performance of July 15 reviewed). Conductor: Wyn Davies. Production: Giles Havergal, Design: Leslie Travers, Lighting: John Bishop, Choreography: Tim Claydon, Cast: Victoria Joyce (HélPne / Véronique), Helen Williams (Agathe) Yvonne Howard (Ermerance / Estelle), Florestan (Mark Stone), Coquenard (Donald Maxwell), Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks (Loustot), Owen Webb (Séraphin), Jennifer Walker (Denise) etc

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