Director Barlow lends weight to festival

Joanna Lumley with her husband Stephen Barlow
Joanna Lumley with her husband Stephen Barlow

STEPHEN Barlow’s appointment as artistic director of the Buxton Festival is fairly high profile and the hand and ideas of the composer, conductor (chiefly of opera) and pianist of some note can be detected in the programming for this year’s festival on July 7-25.

It is evident in his choice of operas. Regulars will find Richard Strauss’ autobiographical Intermezzo (six performances), which he styled as a comedy, a far cry from the Italian operatic blockbusters of recent years.

Rarely performed in this country, Barlow conducts it; theatre director Stephen Unwin brings it to the stage and a further Stephen, noted English baritone Stephen Gadd, and ‘Morse’ soprano Janis Kelly are the main principal singers.

It is sung in an English translation, as is a double bill of The Maiden in the Tower by Sibelius and Kashchei the Immortal by Rimsky-Korsakov (five performances), which stretches Buxton’s capacity for unearthing operatic obscurities to new lengths. They are well worth hearing, actually, and the same cast of singers in both includes William Dazeley, a sensation in Donizetti last year, and Stephen (another one) Lawless is in the director’s chair.

Harry Christophers returns to conduct a staging of Handel’s dramatic oratorio Jeptha (five outings) by emergent young English director Frederic Wake-Walker with James Gilchrist, Susan Bickley and Gillian Keith heading a strong cast.

Among productions by visiting companies are Vivaldi’s L’Olympiade, set against an ancient Greek Olympic Games backdrop, which gets two performances and Bampton Classical Opera return with three of Marcos Portugal’s The Marriage of Figaro (not Mozart’s) with Sheffield-born baritone Nicholas Merryweather as Figaro.

A plethora of high quality concerts and recitals include appearances by leading sopranos Claire Rutter, Joan Rodgers and, forsaking their stage personas in the festival, Janis Kelly and Gillian Keith.

Baritone Mark Stone, clarinettist Andrew Marriner and flautist Paul Edmund-Davis have recitals with Stephen Barlow wearing his pianist’s cap and piano virtuoso Leslie Howard appears twice.

The new artistic director’s hand is discernable among intriguing prospects in the Literary Series, and not just because his wife Joanna Lumley is in conversation with three of the speakers, including leading 20th-century warfare historian Antony Beevor.

Elsewhere, playwright Ronald Harwood is in conversation with actor Michael Pennington, Claire Tomalin can be heard talking about Dickens, Lisa Chaney about Coco Chanel, royal biographer Sarah Bradford about the Queen and Helena Matheopoulos about leading fashion designers in opera.