It was a lovely day to travel over to Buxton to see an opera which is part of the Buxton Festival. I arrived and made my way to the hotel, dropped my bag off and went to explore this small town. It was busy by the pavilion with crowds gathered and people drinking beer in the gardens. As I was looking around shops, I realised they were quite empty, I wandered to the main street and discovered that crowds were gathered along the route of the Buxton carnival parade! After the bagpipers and brass band passed by I quickly lost interest.
In the Pavilion was a market featuring locally made goods. The Pavilion restaurant was a convenient place to book a table for a pre-opera meal – fast service and good food.
I went to the Opera House to buy a ticket for the pre-concert talk where the assistant director, Alice Knight was interviewing the director, Elijah Moshinsky and designer Russell Craig. They talked a little about the story and hinted at the costumes. They also said that they really enjoyed being involved in putting on an opera at Buxton due to the smaller venue, whereas you may lose the intimacy in a larger setting.
Orchestra: Northern Chamber Orchestra
Conductor: Stuart Stratford
Director: Elijah Moshinsky
Venue: Buxton Opera House, Buxton
The overture started with Giovanna (dressed simply in a pinafore and shirt) on stage in the corner between two reflective surfaces. As the music played fiercely, her acting showed her internal anguish showing her feelings as someone who wants to fight for her country. The overture contains some gentler phrases where she is shown to be a simple village girl. She ends up praying and then falling asleep where she prays. The villagers and king entered the scene – the king in royal blue and the male villagers/soldiers dressed in a mix of World War I uniform and medieval armour and the female villagers stood above the two intersecting reflective pieces of scenery.
The scene where Giacomo (Giovanna’s father), Giovanna and Carlo (the king) are at the oak tree was a sight to behold. On stage were evil spirits dressed in red wearing masks and gyrating erotically as they sang their barrel song. This instilled a bit of humour into this rather tragic opera. The angels appeared as nuns wearing large cornettes. They had quite an ominous presence as they sang their warning of ‘earthly love’. I rather viewed them as the ‘nuns of doom’! The upper level was used effectively later on as the demons and angels appeared there separately later on.
There were strong vocal performances from the lead vocalists, supported well by a small chorus. The duets and trio were most enjoyable and there were some stellar solo performances – notably from David Cecconi who played Giacomo. The orchestra was excellent and I particularly enjoyed the oboe and cello grieving duet near the end which continued during the singing as Giovanna died.
Funnily enough, a lady in the row in front of me turned to talk to me during the interval. She hadn’t read the programme but had heard that Giovanna doesn’t die at the stake in this version which she was surprised at. (She is rescued from the stake by her father and rushes to battle – only to die on the battlefield although victory for France is won!) I was quite glad I did my research – it definitely made a difference in the understanding of the story, and there were side titles to follow during the opera.
The staff at Buxton Opera House were helpful and friendly- assisting me and answering my questions. After the performance, I stood awkwardly at the artist’s entrance, as orchestral musicians and opera singers walked past. Finally, Kate Ladner (soprano who played Giovanna) appeared, so I introduced myself to her, as I work with her brother in Hong Kong. I think she was surprised and said, ‘So you’re my brother’s representative!’ She was grateful I had made the effort to attend her performance.
The following day, as I was heading home, I overheard two people on the train talking about the previous night’s opera performance. I finally realised that the man was the director. So, I was quickly able to express that I had enjoyed the performance immensely as we disembarked the train to make our connections. Well, it was a lovely experience and I hadn’t realised that the festival has opera, music and literary parts to it. So I will be watching out to see what is on at the festival next year!