Buxton Festival: In love with Handel

Handel's Jephtha, with James Gilchrist.
Handel's Jephtha, with James Gilchrist.

MARITAL complications over a love letter, two imprisoned maidens in distress and a rash vow to the Almighty are the nutshell scenarios of the main opera stagings in this year’s Buxton Festival which starts this weekend.

The last scenario is not actually of an opera, but for an oratorio, Handel’s Jephtha. The festival’s ongoing love affair with Handel continues even with a new artistic director, Stephen Barlow, in place.

At least the oratorio will be familiar to many, unlike the operas the new man has chosen for his first festival, Richard Strauss’ Intermezzo and a double bill of Sibelius’ The Maiden in the Tower and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kashchei the Immortal.

From the point of view of orchestration, the Strauss is a fabulous, if rarely encountered, masterpiece, the barrier to its infrequency of performances being its largely conversational, albeit brilliantly written vocal score – could it have been anything but from this composer?

Strauss penned to it his own libretto and described the work as a bourgeois comedy with symphonic interludes. Its storyline fictionally depicts himself as the character ‘Robert Storch’ and his wife Pauline as ‘Christine’ and is based on an actual incident in their lives.

The gist of the plot is a misdirected love letter addressed to RS, which is intercepted by Storch’s wife, a difficult person at the best of times.

Janis Kelly sings the virtuoso soprano role of Christine in Buxton with Stephen Gadd as Storch, Stephen Barlow is the conductor and the opera is sung in Andrew Porter’s English translation for the Glyndebourne Festival in 1974.

Any production of one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s 14 operas in this country is a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence. First performed in 1902, Kashchei the Immortal (also translated as Deathless), had to wait 92 years for its UK premiere.

The reason for the scarcity of Rimsky’s operas on these shores is usually put down to the nationalistic or Russian folkloristic nature of their storylines, a blinkered viewpoint that robs us of their musical splendour, particularly in the epics such as Sadko.

Kashchei is a one-act opera in three scenes wherein Rimsky tells the tale of a beautiful princess imprisoned by an evil old wizard who cannot die unless his equally wicked daughter cries.

If it sounds remotely familiar, Nijinsky and Stravinsky (Rimsky’s pupil) created The Firebird ballet based on a similar fairy story.

Sibelius’ only opera, also in one act but half as long, was written for a fund-raising concert in 1896 after which it received three further performances before the composer withdrew it for revision. He never did and it remained unheard until a Finnish radio broadcast in 1981.

It, too, tells the tale of an imprisoned maiden, not for fun in this case but after rejecting the advances of a bailiff, and another lover coming to her rescue, while the music is said to betray Wagnerian influence.

A strong-looking cast, which sings in an English translation in both operas, sees the return of William Dazeley following his superb Donizetti exploits last year, French-based Australian soprano Kate Ladner, Richard Berkeley-Steele, Emma Selway and the conductor is Stuart Stratford.

The celebrated Harry Christophers being on the podium for a Handel staging, as he has been for productions of the composer’s works in previous years, including Saul 12 months ago, may account largely for Jephtha’s presence this year.

Handel’s last oratorio and one of the more better known ones after Messiah, it concerns Jephtha’s promise to God that he will sacrifice the first person he meets upon his return if he is victorious in battle. He is and is met by his much-loved daughter, Iphis.

For the Buxton staging, director Frederic Wake-Walker has created what is described as “a timeless production” and he certainly has a fine cast that includes James Gilchrist as Jephtha, Gillian Keith as Iphis and Susan Bickley as her mother and his wife Storgé.

Elizabeth Karami, a soprano whom Sheffield Symphony Orchestra concert attendees have got to know this season, sings the part of the Angel.