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Gillian Keith as Philine [Photo by Robert Workman courtesy of Buxton Opera Festival]
22 Jul 2011

Mignon and Saul at Buxton Opera Festival

Buxton, like Wexford, makes a point of offering its clientele the opportunity to sample works that are unjustly neglected by the major houses, and for his final festival as director, Andrew Greenwood served up a typical feast of operatic rarities reflecting the increasingly ambitious approach which has characterised his musical stewardship.

Ambroise Thomas: Mignon; Georg Frederic Handel: Saul

See body of review for cast lists.

Above: Gillian Keith as Philine

All photos by Robert Workman courtesy of Buxton Opera Festival

 

The first three operatic productions, Donizetti’s Maria di Rohan, Handel’s Saul and Thomas’s Mignon, were all Festival Productions, an impressive achievement for Greenwood as he hands over the reigns to incoming director, Stephen Barlow.

Drawn from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, the libretto of Mignon was rendered by Michel Carré and Jules Barbier into a comic drama, mingling improbable absurdities with touching tenderness.

Lothario, a wealthy gentleman, has lost his mind after the death of his wife and the abduction of his daughter, Sperata, whom he desperately seeks. Kidnapped by the cruel Jarno, the leader of a vagrant band of entertainers, she now appears as his ‘star turn’, Mignon, a mysterious, androgynous dancer. Rescued by the altruistic Wilhelm, Mignon falls in love with her saviour, but he has eyes only for Philine, the dazzling leading lady of a flamboyant troupe of theatrical players. Inexplicably drawn to Mignon, Lothario wishes to support her; but she yearns to be with Wilhelm who reluctantly agrees to let her travel with him, disguised as his male servant. Conflicts increase: Frederick and Wilhelm fight for Philine’s love, while Mignon’s jealous hatred of Philine grows. Driven to the edge of madness she agrees to salvage Philine’s bouquet from a burning theatre, an act of selflessness which spurs Wilhelm to his second chivalrous rescue mission, and awakens his ardent passion for Mignon. However, further unfortunate misunderstandings delay the happy resolution. It is not until Lothario surprisingly declares that the house where Mignon has been recovering belongs to him that her memory of past people and places returns; a box of treasures — a child’s doll and prayer book — sparks the realisation that she is in fact Sperata, his long lost daughter.

In effect, Mignon presents a sort of sub-Puccinian melodrama: the shady unemployed theatrical entertainers possess little of the aesthetic ardency of the Parisian Bohemians; Mignon herself lacks Mimi’s tragic grandeur. However, the characters are appealing and their dilemmas engaging; moreover, the tale offered Thomas much potential for both potent expression and sweet lyricism, and is a work of much musical charm and grace. As Andrew Lamb notes in his programme essay, Mignon, which marked Thomas’s return to composition after a spell as an academic, became the composer’s most successful work, greatly esteemed in its day and performed more than 1500 times from its premiere in 1866 and 1919, after which the forms and idioms it celebrated fell from fashion.

mignon_wendy_dawn_thompson_.gifWendy Dawn Thompson as Mignon and Ryan MacPherson as Wilhelm

Director Annilese Miskimmon has adopted a suitably light touch, updating the action to the 1920s, and delighting in the frivolity and sparkle. Her playful approach is complemented by Nicky Shaw’s economical but visually appealing sets; director and designer work well together to introduce some neat dramatic touches. Thus the opening post-theatre party scene sets off with a swing of energy and jollity, dressing room doors dancing gaily to and fro, as a flurry of acrobats, ventriloquists, escapologists, magicians and dancers whizz and whirl across the stage. The limited space is efficiently deployed: at the end of Act 1, the stage is enveloped in murky smoke to transport us to a dusty, crowded railway station, an illuminated sign pointing the way to the platforms; and the burning theatre, engulfed by flames ignited by an increasingly vengeful and raving Lothario, is effectively realised.

As Wilhelm, American tenor Ryan MacPherson was dramatically credible — a handsome Hollywood matinee idol - and displayed a truly pleasing voice across the registers. His fairly light tenor was initially a little grainy when pushing at the top, but as he relaxed he produced a richer, fuller sound, particularly in the closing trio.

Despite some adroit gymnastic feats, as she deftly squeezed herself into the laundry box in which she is imprisoned by the dastardly Jarno, Wendy Dawn Thompson took a little time to warm up vocally and establish her character. But, her Act 2 aria ‘Connais-tu le pays’ revealed a glowing, rich mezzo tone which conveyed Mignon’s innocence and integrity, developing a deeper psychology as her confusion and suffering are revealed.

Baritone Russell Smythe was a rather jaded Lothario. He had some not insignificant intonation problems, although these lessened as he settled into the role; but he did not find a way to effect a transition between Lothario’s introverted suffering and his aggrieved public outbursts, and Smythe’s tendency to bellow to convey both anger and despair reduced our sympathy for the bereaved and lonely man.

mignon-gillian_keith,_andre.gifGillian Keith as Philine and Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks as Laerte

Indian tenor Amar Muchhaka was a likeable Frederick, but the star of the show was undoubtedly, and fittingly, Gillian Keith as the dazzling diva, Philine. Keith relished the giddy theatricality of her show-stopping Polonaise and despatched the coloratura of ‘Je suis Tytania’ with aplomb. Her dressing-room door appropriately sported a glittering star; and it was no surprise that her excessive luggage required the heft of several strapping chaps to hoist it onto the departing train.

Opera enthusiasts can take an infinite number of improbabilities and coincidences in their stride, but there is an innate problem with Mignon in that the plot does not successfully combine or integrate the comic and tragic strands. Occasionally these sat uncomfortably alongside each other. Thus, the ‘play-within-a-play’ performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream — during which the simple-minded rustics dotingly worship Tytania as she is born aloft upon a crescent moon — was effectively presented (mechanical malfunction adding a further piquant touch), but it was then a rather abrupt switch to Mignon’s increasing distress and despair as she embarked upon a suicide dash into the flames.

Despite this, and the libretto’s somewhat uneven dispersal of dramatic events, energetic conducting by Andrew Greenwood drew lively playing from the Northern Chamber Orchestra and kept the show moving swiftly on to its happy, if slightly implausible, resolution.

Similar imaginative leaps were demanded of the audience by Olivia Fuchs’ production of Handel’s Saul the following evening. In a programme article Fuchs notes that Charles Jennens’ libretto, based on the first book of Samuel, reflects some of the social and political events of the day, and that the challenge is to “[find] another context closer to our own experience that reflects the universal concerns of nationhood, power and its subsequent abuse”. Fuchs thus updates the biblical action to post-WW2: Saul is a physically commanding but psychologically insecure US president and Daniel a dashing young pilot, fresh from heroic exploits which, judging from the exploding mushroom cloud in the opening visual sequence, presumably included dropping the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima.

saul-Jonathan_Best_as_Saul_.gifJonathan Best as Saul

While, generally, attention to detail is a good thing, it is possible to be overly specific and precise. Certainly Saul, composed shortly after the Glorious Revolution, raises questions about leadership, the legitimacy of rule and dynastic succession, and explores the effects of power upon the individual and the community. Such abstract concepts translate with relevance to our own age, but Fuchs’ declaration that Saul “shows us the way a nation establishes itself as a superpower, how it justifies war as a means of defence and a way of establishing national identity” seems to be taking things a bit too far. By pinpointing particular moments in twentieth-century history with such precision, Fuchs and designer Yannis Thavoris try to create parallels that are not always credible or sustainable: the victory chorus which opens Act 1 is now a VJ parade, the subsequent conflict with the Philistines becomes the Korean war (making nonsense of the text — who are the ‘Uncircumcised’ in 1950?), and Daniel only narrowly avoids a ‘Lewinsky moment’ in the Oval Office in Act 2!

Another problem, inherent in the genre, is what to do with the chorus. In opera seria, the ‘chorus’ was not a separate entity but simply an ensemble for the soloists, usually performed as a tableau at the start or end of each act before the sequence of individual da capo arias; but in his oratorios, Handel uses the chorus as a sort of Greek chorus which comments on the action as it develops and provides a moral benchmark for the audience. The difficulty in a dramatic staging of the work is therefore how to integrate the chorus plausibly in the action. Choreographer Clare Whistler certainly tried to suggest the chorus’ unity of thought and judgement, ritualistically assembling the members in sequence, using imitation and repetition of movement to indicate collective judgements and beliefs. Yet, there was frequently too much fuss and busyness: umbrellas were certainly requisite outside the house during an unseasonable wet week, but were they really essential as a prop for a well-drilled choral routine? The ‘meaning’ of such gestures, like the twisting hand movements that opened Act 2, was often obscure or plain daft (were the chorus’ lime green hands supposed to indicate Saul’s envy which the people condemn?). Moreover, they distracted both the chorus from watching the beat, and the audience from focusing on what was otherwise some fine ensemble singing.

Jonathan Best was strong in the title role, conveying the paranoia and jealous anguish of the eponymous ruler with intelligence and conviction. Robert Murray presented a thoughtful portrait, musically focused and dramatically engaging; but as Saul’s two daughters, Merab and Michal, Elizabeth Atherton and Ruby Hughes respectively made less dramatic impact and Hughes’ projection was rather weak at times. Most impressive of the cast was Anne Marie Gibbons, a stunning David, who used her burnished lower register to convey significant emotional depth as the young man experiences fresh hopes, passions and fears. One wonders, though, despite Gibbons’ beautiful legato line and sensitive decorative embellishments, whether the role should not really be taken by a countertenor, as Handel envisaged. In a silent role, as the Witch of Endor, Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks was dramatically effective (he was similarly assured in the small role of Laerte in Mignon the previous evening).

saul-Anne_Marie_Gibbons_as_.gifJonathan Best as Saul, Robert Murray as Jonathan, Anne Marie Gibbons as David, with the Festival chorus

Conducting the Orchestra of the Sixteen, Harry Christophers established a lively momentum in Act 1 but, while alert to the musical details, he was not entirely successful in sustaining dramatic urgency, particularly through the series of slow arias in Act 3. One innate problem is that the musical involvement of David actually decreases in inverse proportion to his dramatic significance and growing power. And, Christophers wasn’t helped by the frequent hiatuses necessitated by numerous scene changes, including one (presumably unintentional) long pause between the scenes of the final act, which destroyed the musical and dramatic impetus.

In addition to the in-house productions and operas presented by visiting companies, the Festival offers a Literary Series, walks, a vibrant Fringe scene, and a concert programme, Mainly Music. On Tuesday 18th July the Frith Piano Quartet were on fine form in a recital of both well-known and unfamiliar chamber music by Dvořák. Taking advantage of the presence of a harmonium in the Pavilion Arts Centre, they began with the seldom performed Five Bagatelles, Op.47, Alistair Young’s warm harmonium tones blending sympathetically with the folk-inspired melodies of the strings, which are developed in variation form through a range of tempi and moods. Young was replaced by pianist Benjamin Frith in Dvořák’s second Piano Quartet in E-flat Op.87. The precision of the ensemble, led confidently and with stylistic panache by Robert Heard, was impressive: the instrumentalists responded sensitively as individual lines rose and fell within the energetic textures, Frith’s vigorous piano motifs never over-shadowing the strings. Louise Williams enjoyed the opportunities afforded by the composer to display her rich viola tone, while ‘cellist Richard Jenkinson provided strong rhythmic impetus, his athletic and precise pizzicato particularly note-worthy.

The 2012 Festival promises more such delights, with a programme scheduled to include more Handel, Strauss’s Intermezzo and Sibelius’s The Maiden in the Tower.

Claire Seymour

Cast Lists:

Mignon

Mignon: Wendy Dawn Thompson; Philine: Gillian Keith; Wilhelm: Ryan MacPherson; Lothario: Russell Smythe; Laerte: Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks; Jerno: Mark Holland; Frederick: Amar Muchhala. Conductor: Andrew Greenwood. Director: Annilese Miskimmon. Designer: Nicky Shaw. Lighting: John Bishop. Buxton Opera Festival 2011, Saturday 16th July 2011.

Saul

Saul: Jonathan Best; Jonathan: Robert Murray; David: Anne Marie Gibbons; Merab: Elizabeth Atherton; Michal: Ruby Hughes; Witch of Endor: Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks; Ghost of Samuel: Andrew Slater; High Priest: Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks; Doeg: Philip Gault. Conductor: Harry Christophers. Director: Olivia Fuchs. Designer: Yannis Thavoris. Choreographer: Clare Whistler. Lighting designerJohn Bishop. Buxton Opera Festival 2011, Sunday 17th July 2011.

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