Buxton festival review – cowboys, canines and note-perfect farce

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The Guardian

What do you get if you combine a soprano shimmying to a baroque orchestra, an aristocratic household with a pug fixation, and gags about Arts Council funding and the local water? The answer is 48 hours in Buxton. After the cancelled season in 2020 and last year’s masked-up affair, the opera festival is back in full Technicolor: unapologetically ambitious and fizzing with energy. In fact, if these young casts had fizzed any more vigorously, they might have dissolved entirely.

Johann Hasse’s Antonio e Cleopatra cannot claim to be the best-known version of the story. Buxton’s production, directed by Evangeline Cullingworth, transforms the no-frills stage of the Pavilion Arts Centre into a cheap hotel room (bed, chair, fire escape) where the protagonists take refuge after Antony’s military defeat. It’s an ideal setting: grimly oppressive as Cleopatra enters with “Egyptian” wig in hand and suitcase in tow, and all the more claustrophobic as the couple recall happier times and dream of global domination.

Clad in denim, cowboy boots and Ray-Bans, Thalie Knights’ Antonio looks more L-Word cameo than military hero. But her warm mezzo was stylish and well matched to Ellie Neate’s bright, controlled Cleopatra (her ornamentation ferociously virtuosic) – both persuasive stage presences in this intense two-hander. That despite some ill-advised dancing (to the natty playing of the one-to-a-part Buxton Festival Baroque Orchestra, directed by Satoko Doi-Luck) and an overreliance on Cleopatra’s suitcase as a dressing-up box. It closed with a genuinely poignant coup de théâtre in which both dressed as their fabled characters and disappeared through the fire escape.

Jonathan Dove’s Mansfield Park is now a decade old and not unlike a costume drama with a post-minimalist soundtrack. Anyone distressed by the reinvention of Antony and Cleopatra as lesbian sitcom-cum-gritty refugee drama could relax amid the empire-line dresses of Rebecca Meltzer’s production. We even heard Mozart piano sonatas to conjure Austen’s setting before being plunged into the bosom of the Bertram family. Much of the singing was again excellent, with standout performances from Emily Gray as the pug-loving Lady B, Neate as her daughter Maria (less than 24 hours after her Cleopatra) and Eleanor Garside as the skin-crawlingly awful Aunt Norris.

Most impressive was a new production of Donizetti’s Viva la Diva – his early farce presented in a contemporary English version by Kit Hesketh-Harvey and directed by Stephen Medcalf. It is effectively The Opera That Goes Wrong. The audience loved it, from the jokes about badly behaved prima donnas and pretentious directors (the rollneck-clad BS Merchant played with pitch-perfect earnestness by Elliott Carlton Hines) to the non-stop visual slapstick.

The singing was seriously good, but that often seemed beside the point, as did the plot. Once we had survived a rocket sponsored by a vodka company, an orchestral strike and a last-minute he’s-your-father revelation, Donizetti’s score fizzled out into a fire alarm and a dead dog. As an audience member behind me murmured on her way out: “Well we got there. I don’t know how, but we got there.”

July 15, 2022 at 06:36PM Flora Willson

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