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SJOG Travelers

It's Time To Plan For Next Summer's Festivals
By Mort Levine

The growing phenomena of summer opera festivals, both at home and abroad, give the opera lover a renewed stimulus to travel to interesting places but also indulge in some very diverse and even occasionally memorable operatic experiences. In a few months the annual festival line-ups will be listed in Opera News magazine and on various websites. But the time to do some preliminary planning may be right now especially where good accommodations get snapped up early by the repeat festival goers.

Just about a year ago, we began researching the upcoming festival scene trying to align interesting opera offerings with a location which held equal interest. We began focusing on England where four or five new outdoor opera venues have been established in the past few years, similar to the long successful Glyndebourne model.

Then we broadened our scope to include older festivals and settled on the spa town of Buxton 50 miles southeast of Manchester in the north of England. It is in the midst of The Peaks National Park with a delightful collection of elegant structures for opera, theatre, lectures and recitals. The Buxton Opera House once was a 1920's movie palace on the order of San José's California Theatre remodeling. It features fine sightlines and acoustics. Dozens of excellent restaurants and places to stay surround the venue. The clincher was the offerings.

It has been the festival's mission to showcase the "next best" of famed composers who are known for just one or two great works. Seven well-known composers were represented by six works we had never seen or heard. All seven were done with excellent professional casts but none of the big names which would put box office charges far above the very modest prices normal for the festival. Each was done in English eliminating the need for supertitles.

We managed in an 8-day span to see all seven. These included a gripping L'Armide claimed by Gluck to have been his best work. It had hints of Orphée et Eurydice, his best known masterpiece.

Georges Bizet may be known for Carmen and Pearlfishers, but his Fair Maid of Perth, based on a Walter Scott novel, also deserves to be better known. It is a melodic romp with a full-range of the usual operatic characters from noblemen to gypsies.

Coronation of Poppea is the most performed of Monteverdi's operas and is based on a true tale of Roman royal intrigues and love affairs. It grabs the audience early and doesn't let go until its bloody climax.

Shostakovich's satyric comedy, The Nose, was written during a brief window of artistic freedom in the 1920s although Stalin slammed it shut pretty quickly snuffing out the opera until long after the deaths of the composer and the dictator. With aspects of broad farce and surrealist absurdity, this is a work to which contemporary audiences can really relate. In hindsight, it may have been the most worthwhile of the entire festival when placed in its historic cultural context.

It was Mozart's anniversary, so the festival gave us an amazing work rarely seen, Apollo and Hyacinthus. This was written when Mozart was 11 years old and purports to be his very first opera. It could easily pass for the work of a veteran composer, and some cynics might even cast an eye at Wolfgang's papa.

Another surprising presentation was from Georg Philipp Telemann. His 1725 chamber opera Pimpinone is the telling of a wealthy old bachelor taken advantage of by a scheming chambermaid, a simple tale well staged and acted with stirring baroque arias.

It wouldn't be England without a Benjamin Britten opera. Noye's Fludde tells the story of Noah and his wife, children, endless animals and birds. This was in an adjacent church venue where the performance flowed like the flood throughout the audience. Hundreds of child-choristers, musicians and soloists almost equalled the audience in size.

Traveling to Buxton is quite simple after a trans-Atlantic hop. There is a train station right in the Manchester airport [with service] to the town. The festival runs for about three weeks each July. It also features a vigorous fringe festival of plays, literary lectures, chamber music and vocal recitals. The surrounding historic villages invite exploration even without a car. There are excellent local bus services throughout the Peak district and Derbyshire. Many of the huge houses that were backdrops for Brideshead Revisited or various Jane Austen novels can be found in this region.

The range of hotels and B&Bs within a few blocks is ample but fills up by late spring. After that it might be a bit more of a walk. Web-search using Buxton Festival will get all kinds of information as will calling up Summer Opera Festivals in England.

The friendliness encouraged by a festival setting is remarkable to experience. The intimacy of the setting coupled with delightful weather and charming surroundings make it a good bet for any opera lover.

(SJOG Newsletter November, 2006 Issue)



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