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Peak Performance in Buxton

ADRIAN TINNISWOOD explores the charming Derbyshire market town of Buxton and its splendidly restored Edwardian theater.

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Views of Buxton's Edwardian opera house, above and right, designed by Frank Matcham
© Robert Workman 2012
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© Robert Workman 2012
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Courtesy Buxton Festival

"One of the most beautiful places of entertainment in the kingdom" — that was what one early-twentieth-century writer thought of the Edwardian opera house at Buxton, deep in the heart of the English Peak District. He was right. Built in 1903 by Frank Matcham, the prolific doyen of British theater design (he was responsible for designing or refurbishing about 150 theaters, including English National Opera's current home, the London Coliseum), the 900-seat Buxton opera house is a joyous riot of rose-pink marble and creamy plasterwork, with a liberal dose of gleaming gilt. It's an Elysian playground in which lute-wielding golden cherubs perch precariously on plaster ledges, watched over by benevolent half-naked nymphs floating in the ceiling above.

Matcham's masterpiece is more than just the main venue for the delightful Buxton Festival, which celebrates its thirty-fourth season this year: it is the reason for the festival's existence. After being turned into a cinema, the opera house went into what seemed like terminal decline until, in 1976, it closed its doors — "for the winter," said its owners. "Forever" was what they meant. A general mobilization of local and national opinion led to a loving restoration and, when it reopened three years later, to the inaugural Buxton Festival. Festival firsts have included the first performance since the eighteenth century of Francesco Bartolomeo Conti's Don Chisciotte in Sierra Morena; the first complete performance of Grétry's Le Huron; and the first British performance of Cimarosa's Il Pittore Parigino.

Over the past thirty-three years, Buxton has maintained its determination to put on rare and rarely-performed works, and chief executive Glyn Foley is sure that this emphasis on the less-traveled paths of opera tradition plays a big part in the festival's appeal. "We can't compete with the full-timers," he says. "There's no reason for opera-lovers to travel up from London to see another production of The Magic Flute. But Peter Cornelius's Barber of Baghdad [staged here in 2010] — now that's a different matter!"

This approach is not without its hazards. For one thing, Buxton must ask a lot of its performers: it can't pay top fees, and it often requires them to sing a part that isn't in their repertoire, so they have to learn the role for what may prove to be a one-off performance. (It's a testament to the festival's popularity that artists keep coming back for more.) For another — well, let's face it, there are sometimes very good reasons why an opera is rarely performed. But the gems far outweigh the dross, and even when a production turns out not to be a forgotten masterpiece, it always has a certain curiosity value. Duds at Buxton are far rarer than a performance of Conti's Don Chisciotte

This year will be the last season for Foley, who retires after fourteen years in the post, and who remembers playing bassoon in the pit at the festival's 1981 production of Cimarosa's Il Matrimonio Segreto. True to form, the season's offerings — all fully staged — are hardly what you'd call repertory standards. Richard Strauss's autobiographical Intermezzo, in which he turned his stormy married life into a "bourgeois comedy," is perhaps the most familiar, with recent productions by New York City Opera and Scottish Opera in 2010 and 2011. But it's hardly a mainstay of the repertoire. Nor, for that matter, is Handel's Jephtha, which also gets an outing in 2012. James Gilchrist plays the title role in this tale of an Israelite leader who vows that if God gives him victory in battle he will sacrifice the first person he meets after his return — only to find that that person is his daughter Iphis. Gillian Keith sings Iphis, and the excellent Susan Bickley is Jephtha's wife, Storgé.

There was a period in the early 1990s when, beaten down by the sheer cost, Buxton abandoned the idea of staging its own productions and gave the festival over entirely to visiting opera. That change in direction brought problems of its own, says Foley — not least the difficulty of ensuring the high quality that Buxton audiences demanded.

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The pavilion and bandstand in Buxton
© Roy Childs/Alamy 2012

So in 1997 the festival began to stage its own operas once again — first just one a year, then two, now three. In 2011, Maria di Rohan, Donizetti's tragedy of misunderstanding at the court of Louis XIII, rotated with Handel's Saul (which, like Jephtha, had the Orchestra of the Sixteen and Harry Christophers) and a charming revival of Ambroise Thomas's opéra comique Mignon. The last left one English reviewer "wondering why the opera has been neglected for so long." That's what Buxton does best.

This season's third production keeps the flame alive with a double bill that operagoers are not likely to see anywhere else. The Maiden in the Tower, which tells the story of — yes — a maiden in a tower, is Sibelius's only completed opera. The theme of damsels in distress is carried on with a rare production of Rimsky-Korsakov's Kashchei the Immortal, in which a princess imprisoned by a wicked sorcerer is rescued by a handsome prince. Kate Ladner makes her debut at Buxton playing both damsels. 

This year, four visiting companies are also coming to Buxton, putting on The Turn of the Screw, Vivaldi's L'Olimpiade, Marcos Portugal's Marriage of Figaro and Too Hot to Handel, a pastiche that intertwines some of Handel's finest arias. There are recitals and concerts: leading English soprano Joan Rodgers will be performing, as will the Sacconi Quartet and The Frolick, whose distinctive brand of Baroque opera cabaret has recently been charming audiences all over the U.K. There is a literary series, too — less adventurous than the opera program, perhaps, with the usual suspects from the book festival circuit putting in the usual appearances, but still entertaining.

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A scenes from the 2011 Buxton Festival's staging of Ambroise Thomas's Mignon
© Robert Workman 2012

The best opera festivals are about place as well as performance. Think of Wexford, Savonlinna, Verona. Buxton always takes a starring role — quirky, intimate, never a prima donna but always ready to elbow herself to the front of the stage. The town owes its existence to the mineral springs. Mary Queen of Scots came here to take the waters in the sixteenth century, but it was only after the arrival of the railway in 1863 that a visit became practical enough for the spa to prosper. By the early twentieth century, the town was thriving, with Matcham's opera house and a clutch of new hotels; formal public gardens, where a band played three times a day throughout the summer, and a vast glass pavilion with its own concert rooms; and the thermal baths themselves, which offered no fewer than eighty-nine different treatments. The list was terrifying — the Schnee Four-Cell baths and the d'Arsonval High Frequency bath, the carbonic acid baths, the electro-water baths and "Schott movements for heart affections." My own favorite is the "Fango Radio-Active mud treatment," for which the mud was imported especially from Italy. (The waters at Buxton, although once described enthusiastically as "extraordinarily rich in radioactivity," were apparently not radioactive enough. The thermal baths have been closed for some years.)

Yet the memory of the spa's heyday still fills the town. Next door to the opera house is the restored pavilion, now a 453-seat arts center that last year hosted more than a dozen festival concerts and musical events. The Palace Hotel, an over-the-top piece of froth built in the 1860s to cater to the thousands of convalescents and hypochondriacs flocking here for a cure, is also used for the festival, as is the airy Georgian church of St. John the Baptist — where the failures were buried, presumably. 

All these venues are within easy walking distance of each other, and of the town's hotels, bars and restaurants. This small-scale intimacy is part of Buxton's charm: it is perfectly possible to stroll from one end of the town to the other in less than thirty minutes. Even so, the festival can be quite an intense experience, with twenty-seven opera performances and more than forty recitals, chamber and orchestral concerts over nineteen days, not to mention thirty-three speakers in the literary series. But the great thing is that you can take Buxton at your own pace. Some festival-goers pack in as many events as they possibly can. "I don't know how they find the time to eat," says Foley. Others pick and choose, spending their days soaking up the Edwardian splendors of the town or driving out into the haunting ancient landscapes of the Peak District. 

Buxton is a festival that glories in its friendly atmosphere — a place where tea-drinking farmers in rough tweeds chat with tuxedo-clad critics sipping champagne, where you're likely to see the person who sat next to you during an afternoon literary event performing in the chorus an hour or two later. Easy informality rubs shoulders with rare opera and first-rate performances. That's quite an achievement. spacer 

ADRIAN TINNISWOOD is an author, historian and broadcaster. He lives in Bath, England.  



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Current Issue: October 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 4