Dvorak’s The Jacobin and Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, the two operas that opened this year’s Buxton Festival, are both relative rarities today, but their creators’ fortunes tell an interesting story. Dvorak’s operas — or at least Rusalka — joined the repertoire around the same time, during the 1980s, that Gluck’s arguably starting slipping from the stage, to the extent that now means the UK’s main companies are all but ignoring the composer’s 300th anniversary this year.
Both works, in their different ways, also explore the power of music. Orpheus is the archetypal musician in art, whose power as singer enabled him to bring back Eurydice from death — temporarily in the original myth, permanently in the double-reprieve, Enlightenment-friendly happy ending concocted by Gluck and his librettist Ranieri de’ Calzabigi. In The Jacobin, Dvorak’s eighth opera of 11, virtually everyone is a singer: it’s a piece that seems to me a little like an unruly Bohemian Meistersinger.
But the loosely political and the broadly picturesque are haphazardly assembled in Marie Cervinkova-Riegrova’s libretto, which has the additional problem of having too many characters featuring in too many plots — all of which drift unpredictably in and out of focus. It’s full of people singing songs and culminates in the Count (absent through virtually all of the first two acts) being reconciled to his estranged son, the Jacobin of the title, after hearing once more the lullaby his dead wife used to sing. There’s also Terinka, daughter of Benda, the fussy but good-hearted music master. He wants her to marry an old bumbling local bureaucrat, Filip; she fancies the gamekeeper Jiri.
It’s a bit of a hotchpotch, and the loose ends get tied up too hastily in the final minutes. But the folk-tinged music is unfailingly, life-enhancingly tuneful, humane and witty. And Stephen Unwin’s production thankfully avoids mere period-costume quaintness. He also, thankfully, knows not to come on too strong in his updating to the 1930s, despite the fact that Adolf (the Count’s evil nephew) now has hints of his famous namesake, while a Stalin-like Filip represents political oppression from the East. That might not sound promising, but it successfully allows greater focus in terms of characterisation, increases the tensions of the plot and gives a melancholy tinge to the Czech national pride that seeps through the work. In Jonathan Fensom’s economical design — minimal props on an autumn-coloured square panel centre stage, brooding skyscapes shifting behind — it looks austere, but the opera’s moments of uncomplicated pleasure seem all the more joyous in the context (Act 2’s chaotic rehearsal for Benda’s new cantata is a delight).
It’s a fine ensemble effort from Buxton’s cast, too, with Anna Patalong’s charming Terinka standing out, and Bonaventura Bottone and Nicholas Folwell brilliant as Benda and Filip. Nicholas Lester brings unimpeachable integrity and film-star handsomeness to Bohus. However, as Julie, his wife brought from Paris, Anne Sophie Duprels seemed out of sorts, her foggy-sounding singing not helped by her strong, if appropriately French, accent. (The opera is sung in Rodney Blumer’s clear, clever translation.) Andrew Greenan stepped in heroically at the last minute as a resonant, noble Count. Stephen Barlow brings out all the sunny charm of the score, buoyantly played by the Northern Chamber Orchestra.
Stephen Medcalf’s production of Orfeo, performed in its original 1762 version, goes for greater abstraction, with Frances O’Connor’s black-box design featuring the oversized letters of Orfeo’s name, which can be illuminated and moved into various configurations by the constantly active chorus. Orfeo becomes an ageing rock star, one who is too distracted by fawning groupies during the overture to notice Euridice’s death (of a drugs overdose, predictably). His love for her and his quest become something narcissistic, but also unaffecting: we lose the power of the work as a study in mourning, longing and the desire to retrieve the irretrievable. Only in the finale, with suggestions of an ever-present, resolutely un-cupid-like Amore being involved in a love triangle with the title characters, does it start to get interesting. But too much of the rest feels contrived, clichéd and faintly silly: the Furies at the Gates of Hell are zombie-like muggers mollified more by Orfeo’s shoes and wallet than by his singing; the Elysian Fields seem to be somewhere on Ibiza.
A more fundamental problem, though, comes in the shape of Michael Chance’s Orfeo. The voice, alas, is ragged and raw, often out of tune and fundamentally incapable of the beguiling beauty around which the plot revolves. As his Euridice, Barbara Bargnesi sings cleanly and appealingly, and Amore is sung with real charm and ping by Daisy Brown, stepping up from the excellent, ever-active chorus. Stuart Stratford conducts lovingly and musically. Buxton should be highly praised for marking Gluck’s anniversary. I only wish I could be more enthusiastic about the way it has done so.
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Further details: www.buxtonfestival.co.uk
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