A look ahead to the 2019 Buxton International Festival
PUBLISHED: 00:00 28 May 2019
Mike Smith looks forward to this year’s Buxton International Festival, which is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its launch
Veteran opera critic David Denton, who has attended every Buxton Festival since its inauguration in 1979, says: 'I'll go anywhere in the world to see an unusual opera and the Buxton Festival is an absolute gold mine for me. I am looking forward this year to seeing an opera which is being performed for the first time in 300 years and a world premiere written just for Buxton.'
The opera being staged for the first time in three centuries is Lucio Papirio Dittatore, a story of family strife in pre-Imperial Rome. This forgotten gem was composed in 1719 by the Italian composer Antonio Caldara for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. The work, featuring jubilant choral writing and dazzling arias, is being performed by the baroque ensemble La Serenissima, the winners of a prestigious Gramophone Classical Music Award. The title role is being sung by Robert Murray, already known to festival regulars for his starring role in Brescianello's Tisbe last year.
The world premiere written for Buxton is Georgiana, an opera pasticcio, illustrating the life and times of Georgiana, the 5th Duchess of Devonshire, with lyrics by Michael Williams, the Festival's CEO. Although Georgiana was a glamorous 18th-century 'celebrity' who is often referred to as the Princess Diana of her day, her life was even more turbulent than that of Diana. As well as dazzling London society with her charisma, she was involved in dangerous liaisons, political activism and compulsive gambling, as portrayed in the Hollywood film, The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley.
In keeping with one of the best traditions of the Festival, the title role is being played by an opera singer in the early years of her career: Samantha Clarke, who was born in London, grew up in South Africa and London, and was trained at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. Explaining why the festival is the perfect venue for showcasing young talent, David Denton said, 'One reason for young stars starting here is the modest size of the Opera House, which allows young singers to make the most of their talent without straining their evolving voices.'
Recalling that she was given her own big break as a young singer at the Buxton Festival, the celebrated soprano Lesley Garrett, says, 'I owe this festival a debt I simply cannot repay.' In fact, she is working hard to repay that debt by helping to raise £1.5 million in an appeal launched to ensure the future of the annual event.
The festival's new Artistic Director, Adrian Kelly, is another young talent. After spending two years as the Musical Director of the Salzburg State Theatre, Adrian is clearly looking forward to bringing the 'sound of music' to the hills of the High Peak. He says, 'As soon as I glimpsed the interior of the Buxton Opera House, I began to imagine the operas I would like to experience in this intimate space. One of my first ideas was Eugene Onegin, a powerful story of love and loss. I feel sure that a cast of established singers and promising young talents, along with the Northern Chamber Orchestra and the Buxton Festival Chorus, will be able to harness the passion of Tchaikovsky's inspired score.'
The inauguration of the Buxton Festival in 1979 coincided with the renovation of the Opera House, but the sumptuously-decorated Edwardian theatre is not the only inspirational venue that is being used this year. The spectacular Devonshire Dome will be the venue for a sophisticated evening of fine dining, musical theatre and opera, and the Octagon Hall, a masterpiece of Victorian architectural engineering, which has just undergone a £3 million restoration, will host a concert given by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, performing for the first time at the Festival. Although the renovation of the town's famous Georgian Crescent will not be finished in time for the Festival, visitors will be able to access tourist information in the newly-restored Victorian Pump Room.
Magnificent festival venues will not be confined to the town of Buxton. At the invitation of Lord and Lady Manners, Haddon Hall's Elizabethan Long Gallery, one of the most beautiful rooms in England and one that is blessed with perfect acoustics, will host the young stars of Cape Town Opera. Six singers, accompanied by piano, will perform a mixture of Gospel, traditional South African folk music, jazz and some light opera on the opening day of the festival. On the following day, they will put on a programme of sacred music from around the globe in the candle-lit Norman chapel.
The 'out of Africa' theme continues at Buxton Opera House, where singers from the Festival Company, along with 200 young people from seven different local schools, will present seven performances of The Orphans of Koombu. This combination of opera, musical theatre and African melodies, which tells a moving story of oppression and freedom, is based on The Secret Song, written by Michael Williams. The work has been performed in recent years to communities throughout South Africa by the Cape Town Opera Company, where Michael was the Managing Director, before taking up his post as CEO at Buxton in 2018. This year, he will be overseeing almost 180 events during the 17 days of the spa town's annual extravaganza, which is fully justifying its billing as the 'Buxton International Festival'.
The Book Festival
As always, the Book Festival will be one of the most appetising ingredients on the festival menu. The organiser of the literary events is Victoria Dawson, who joined the festival staff last year, after spending ten years as a partner in two independent bookshops in Scotland. In her new role, she is already making the most of her extensive book-knowledge accrued over the last two decades.
Describing how she is trying to be thoughtful and creative in her selection of authors, Victoria said: 'As well as inviting well-known writers to appear at the festival, I have included authors of books and ideas that could become lost in the swirl of the large publishing houses and in the festival circuit. For example, the popular historian and television personality Lucy Worsley is part of a line-up which also includes Sophie Thérèse Ambler, an historian who is highly regarded but is not so well-known as Lucy. Two Derbyshire-born authors appearing this year will include Mark Cocker, the best-selling natural history writer, as well as the up-and-coming crime writer Sarah Ward.'
It is particularly appropriate that Amanda Foreman, the author of the Whitbread Prize-winning book Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, will be appearing. Other well-known authors coming to Buxton include Melvyn Bragg, John Lancaster, Max Hastings, Kate Humble, Robin Hanbury Tenison, Nick Robinson and Melissa Harrison. Hopefully, Melissa's book Rain, her evocative meditation on the English landscape in wet weather, will not be descriptive of conditions during this year's festival, when everyone will be hoping for a repeat of last year's stunning High Peak summer.
Victoria is adding a new element to this year's Book Festival by launching a series of 'literary salons'. Enthusing about the innovation, she said, 'The idea is to introduce books and music in a bohemian setting, exactly as the great literary hostesses did at the end of the 19th century. The salons, held in the Edwardian house of Pat and Philip Holland, will provide the perfect atmosphere for each of the authors to share their ideas with an intimate gathering of about 50 festival-goers. One of those authors is Naoko Abe, the author of "Cherry" Ingram: The Englishman Who Saved Japan's Blossoms, a book that has attracted much praise in the literary pages of the quality press. Naoko's talk will be complemented by a performance from a Japanese instrumentalist.'
The Buxton Festival Fringe
The Buxton Festival Fringe was first introduced in 1980, one year after the inauguration of the main festival. In its first season, the Fringe attracted 56 entries. Since that time, it has gone from strength to strength. Last year, it hosted over 500 performances from 183 entries, with many participants seeing the Buxton event as a rehearsal for an appearance at the Edinburgh Fringe. The many events included dance, drama, music, poetry, comedy film and magic, as well as an art exhibition at the Green Man Gallery that was visited by an estimated 700 people.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary, this year's Fringe will last from 3rd to 24th July, three days longer than normal. As always, the organisers will aim to provide an opportunity for artists to take risks and experiment, while performing or exhibiting in an environment that is low-cost and in an atmosphere that is receptive. It would be hard to find a more receptive audience than one comprised of enthusiastic and knowledgeable festival-goers!