Bow Group's David Starkey will be giving a literary lecture at Buxton festival

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By David Mellor for Event

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This year’s Buxton Festival has new productions of three neglected operas, presented in Frank Matcham’s charming picture-postcard opera house in the heart of old Buxton: a rare performance of Verdi’s original 1847 Macbeth, Benjamin Britten’s comedy Albert Herring, celebrating its 70th anniversary, and Mozart’s seldom-performed Lucio Silla, knocked out when the lad was in his mid-teens. 

There are also more concerts than ever this summer, with artists of the stature of Paul Lewis, Dame Sarah Connolly and Sir John Tomlinson – plus literary lectures from the likes of David Starkey, Patricia Routledge and Chris Patten, with lots of tickets as cheap as chips.

It’s a superb achievement from an organising committee that works on a very small budget, almost entirely devoid of help from the local authority, despite all the money the festival brings into Buxton’s economy.

Last weekend I caught up with the Britten and the Mozart. Both are characterised by exceptional orchestral playing and conducting. 

Albert Herring has a dazzling orchestral score full of allusions to almost everything from Wagner to the English Hymnal. The dozen-strong Northern Chamber Orchestra, led by veteran artistic director Nicholas Ward, and well conducted by Justin Doyle, are on fine form. 

As are most of the cast. This is an ensemble piece, and inevitably some singers make a better impression than others in a clever comedy of manners.

There are good- natured jokes about the English class system and middle-class morality, and everyone trembles deferentially at the sight and sound of Lady Billows, a forthright performance from Yvonne Howard, though she sadly lacks a genuine comic touch.

Particularly strong support is offered by Lucy Schaufer as her long-suffering housekeeper, Florence Pike. The two young lovers, Morgan Pearse as Sid, and Kathryn Rudge as Nancy, particularly catch both the eyes and the ears.

Bradley Smith’s Herring is a dumb cluck who seizes his chance to break free and live a bit with the proceeds of winning the village’s May King competition (don’t ask), but his portrayal is slightly marred by him seeming too bright and alert. Not really Albert. 

That may be the fault of director Francis Matthews, who otherwise shows a sure touch throughout a thoroughly enjoyable romp.

None of the critics around me could remember a previous professional staged performance of Lucio Silla, a tale of a Roman dictator who improbably allows the sincere love of Giunia (Rebecca Bottone on outstanding form) for Cecilio, a ‘trouser role’ well taken by Madeleine Pierard, to give him a Damascene conversion, in which he renounces violence, oppression, bullying etc.

Fflur Wyn is persuasive in the second-soprano role of Celia, and Karolína Plicková is convincingly male as Lucio, wearing what looks like a ginger wig borrowed from Michael Fabricant, or maybe it really was a dead cat.

It’s eminently predictable that most cast members, especially Joshua Ellicott’s Silla, should find Mozart’s virtuosic, flashy vocal music a strain. 

One of the reasons this piece isn’t often done is surely because it is so difficult.

But it was good to hear a work that was a significant stepping stone on Mozart’s rise to greatness. 

Especially when the English Concert were on superb form throughout under the experienced direction of Laurence Cummings – proving yet again that the principal prerequisite of a fine evening at the opera isn’t the singers but an exceptional orchestra and conductor.

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