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Posts Tagged ‘Buxton Opera House’

I was underwhelmed when I first saw this show in 2003 on Broadway, in Sam Mendes production with Bernadette Peters as Rose. That changed when Chichester presented it in 2014 with Imelda Staunton giving one of her many definitive performances. Now it’s Joanna Riding’s turn in Paul Kerryson’s production for the Buxton International Festival, and she rises to the occasion, commanding the stage, making the role her own. Surely this has to have more than the scheduled eight performances?

It’s the story of the ultimate pushy mom, determined to make her daughter a star, to live her own ambitions through her child. Rose creates a children’s act to showcase her favourite daughter June with other daughter Louise in the chorus of other kids. She takes them everywhere and anywhere to get stage time, but they never make the big time, going on for a long time beyond any definition of child act. June eventually runs away with fellow performer Tulsa, so Rose has to turn her attention to her other daughter. As vaudeville declines and burlesque takes off, she’s even prepared to push Louise beyond the point you’d expect any mom to do. Along the way former showbiz agent now candy salesman becomes infatuated with her, but both he and Louise have their breaking point. It’s based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, which tells you who Louise becomes, but on her terms, with both her and Herbie leaving Rose behind.

It’s a wonderful score, mostly for Rose, and the second show for which Sondheim wrote lyrics before doing both. It requires an actress of immense vocal and acting talent to pull it off and Joanna Riding does it brilliantly. In a career full of high spots, this tops them all, until the next one of course. She gets under the skin of Rose and you can see and feel all that single-minded determination, uncontrollable ambition and ballsiness. Monique Young is excellent as Louise, initially accepting of the background, reluctant to take over from June, becoming her own woman and wresting control of her life from Rose. David Leonard brilliantly conveys the unconditional loyalty of Herbie before he too can take no more. In an outstanding cast, Tiffany Graves shines (again!) as burlesque long-timer Tessie Tura, with great sidekicks in Alesha Pease’s Elektra and Rebecca Lisewski’s Mazeppa, their number You Gotta Get A Gimmick a real comic showstopper.

Paul Kerryson’s production has great pace without losing the power of the fine solo moments when we see the beating heart of Rose. David Needham provides fitting choreography and Ben Atkinson leads a fine thirteen piece orchestra which does full justice to Jule Styne’s music. The design team of Phil R Daniels, Charles Cusick Smith and Jake Wiltshire create the period, locations and aesthetics superbly whilst facilitating the pace of the production. The Buxton Opera House proves to be a great home for this show; it fits it like a glove.

This was such a treat which elevates the show, for me, from one of interest because of Sondheim’s involvement to a master work of 20th Century musical theatre. London, you’ve no idea what you’re missing!

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It’s sixteen years since my last visit to the Buxton Festival and twenty years since my first, and boy has it grown. Then there were two operas, now there are eight. It has dropped ‘Opera’ from its title and added recitals, lots of spoken word and more. It has grown a fringe that, like Edinburgh, has got bigger (though maybe not better – yet!) than its parent. Fortunately, it hasn’t succumbed to dressing up and other poshness, though the average age seems to have gone up (same audience getting older?) enabling me to feel good about bringing it down!

The first opera was Vivaldi’s first. He apparently wrote 50, but we rarely see any. By the interval I thought I understood why – mediocre music, perfunctorily performed here – but he saved his best tunes until the second half and the cast responded by raising their game significantly. Ottone in Villa is one of those silly love quadrangles with trouser roles and implausible disguises, but when the music was good, it didn’t matter – though three stifling hours on the hottest day of the year was a challenge!

The same first half / second half contrast occurred in the double-bill, with the first opera, Saint-Saens’ La Princesse Jaune, creaking somewhat, despite a clever set and good singing. It has been relocated to Paris and set in an attic where Lena is pursuing her cousin Kornelis who has an opium-induced fantasy about an oriental woman! A bit slight and a rather dated feel to it. The second, Gounod’s La Colombe, made up for it though; a delightful comedy about how a parrot gets killed for love! Beautifully sung, with Jonathan Best’s Maitre Jean a masterclass in comic opera performance. Les Brotherston’s clever set relocated this in the apartment below the attic of the first opera, which was still in view, as the top of the apartment had (just) been in the first opera without giving the game away.

I’d failed to get tickets for Britten’s Church Parables in Aldeburgh, but managed to get them for the same productions here, and what a treat they were. Written at two-year intervals over four years in the mid-60’s and performed in the same four-day period in June, they are now rarely staged (I’d only seen them once, in a concert hall). Though each lasts just 70 minutes or so, they have huge atmosphere when staged in a church, weaving an extraordinary spell. Singers process as monks to a high stage where they play out the parables – a woman’s search for her lost son in Curlew River, a father’s unconditional love in The Prodigal Son and Nebuchadnezzar’s killing of three Israelites in The Burning Fiery Furnace. Director Frederic Wake-Walker has infused them with Japanese, Middle-Eastern and Balinese influences respectively and it works. A big feather in Mahogany Opera’s cap and yet another treat for the Britten centenary.

The unexpected highlight was Literary Britten, which interspersed two Britten song cycles, beautifully sung by tenor Andrew Kennedy, with poems and letters to Britten by WH Auden read by Alex Jennings no less. There was a bonus too – a world premiere of Tim Watts’ excellent new song cycle. It was a perfectly formed 70 minutes and I was a bit surprised the audience weren’t cheering loudly – I think this might have been the inclusion of Auden’s more racy letters; it’s a conservative crowd here!

Add in a talk by former Labour MP and writer Chris Mullin and a walking tour of the town and you have as fine a festival weekend as you could wish for – despite the fact it wasn’t really the weekend to spend indoors! It was good to return and I hope (and suspect) it won’t be another 16 years before my next visit.

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