Launch night opera at Buxton Festival 2013

saint saenAs artsbeat editor I may write about the arts but that doesn’t make me an expert on every genre and one area in which I definitely lack knowledge is opera.

But with the launch of the 2013 Buxton Festival there is every chance to change that and so on the opening night I was off to see the Festival Double Bill of French operas comiques by Saint-Saens and Gounod.

Both composers are very well known a but Gounod’s La Colombe is rarely performed, and Saint-Saens La Princesse Jaune almost never – one of the main reasons they were chosen for the festival by artistic director Stephen Barlow.

The operas were directed by Francis Matthews and designed by Lez Brotherston. The strong cast of Anne Sophie Duprels, Ryan MacPherson, Gillian Keith, Emma Carrington and Jonathan Best were conducted by Barlow and the Northern Chamber Orchestra was in the pit.

The best move I made, and one I would recommend to anyone going to the opera at Buxton this festival, was to attend the pre-show talk in the Pavilion Arts Centre.

Both Barlow and Matthews were on hand to chat about the operas, give insight into their reasoning for presenting them to the Buxton faithful, explain the plots and the background to the creation of the sets.

It meant I went into Buxton Opera House fully confident that I would understand what I was about to watch and it made all the difference.

When the curtain went up the clever and very beautiful set was revealed and instantly I recognised what Matthews had been describing in the talk.

The two operas had been linked for the double bill by staging the action in the same Paris apartment block one room above the other.

For the first opera we were in an attic room with just a hint of what was below.

Saint-Saens’ La Princesse Jaune, which was premiered in 1872 at the Opera Comique, lasts just 45 minutes and has simply two characters Anne Sophie Duprels as Lena, and Ryan MacPherson as Kornelis, an artist, obsessed with Japan and in love with image of a Japanese girl painted in his room.

His cousin Lena, is in love with him, despairing at competing with his obsession with a non-existent woman.

He takes opium and hallucinates, sees Lena as the Japanese woman and declares his love for her. When he awakes, they sort out the confusion and Kornelis admits how much he loves the real Lena.

MacPherson as Kornelis, looking every inch the artist worked well with Duprels, whose comic timing was terrific.

When the curtain went up on the second opera Brotherston’s set clearly showed Kornelis’s apartment in the attic and the effect was very dramatic.

In the overture, we saw Lena appear to hand a book to the residents of the rooms below and the bucket catching drips from a leak in the room make a second appearance. Both were subtle ways of adding extra links between the two operas.

The plot for La Colombe is just as silly as for the first opera but it is equally as charming. Horace  played by Ryan MacPherson, who worked hard in the double bill,  is down on his uppers having spent all his money on Sylvia played by Gillian Keith, who did not return his love.

He dotes on a dove he has named Sylvia to remind him of his lost love and lives the life of a pauper with his servant Mazet, played by Emma Carrington.

He is approached by Maitre Jean, Jonathan Best, who is attempting to get the dove for his employer Sylvia who wishes to score points over her rival who has a parrot which does tricks.

In her attempt to gain the dove Sylvia agrees to stay to dinner with Horace and as there is nothing to eat he decides to cook the dove to impress her – not knowing of her aims. To say anything else would give away the fun of the plot.

The double bill can be seen at Buxton Opera House on July 8, 11 and 20 at 7.15pm. The talk starts at 6.15pm. For more details go to http://www.buxtonfestival.co.uk