Nippon over to Buxton

Anne Sophie Duprels
Anne Sophie Duprels

A one-act French opera motivated by latter 19th century obsession with all things Japanese and set in Holland lifts the curtain on the annual Buxton Festival this Friday.

Entitled La Princesse Jaune – The Yellow Princess, it was penned by Saint-Saëns in 1872 and forms a harmoniously Gallic double bill with Gounod’s La Colombe – The Dove, premiered as a one-act work in 1860 but expanded to two acts by the composer six years later.

Both works are designated as opéra comique, which doesn’t mean an awful lot you might say as Bizet’s Carmen is too, but they are lighter and comical in the case of the Gounod – not a stranger to the Buxton Opera House stage as there was a festival production of it 30 years ago.

It appears to get sporadic stagings, unlike the obscure Saint-Saëns oriental-flavoured offering, the salutary tale of a student so fixated on a portrait of a Japanese girl he fails to notice a real life girl’s affection for him until after a drug induced ‘trip’ to Japan.

The only fraught aspect surrounding the Gounod is whether a prize dove can escape becoming an impoverished nobleman’s dinner before a wealthy countess, with whom he is in love, can obtain it because she is jealous of a rival’s parrot.

Buxton’s staging, the two-act version, uses the recitatives a young Poulenc composed to replace the spoken dialogue when Diaghilev put the opera on in Monte Carlo on New Year’s Day, 1923.

Its best-known number, relatively speaking, is a bass aria La grand art de la cuisine that laments past culinary glories and is sung here by festival ever-present Jonathan Best as the countess’s major domo; and the nobleman can still afford to shelter a valet, a trouser role taken by Emma Carrington!

Canadian-born soprano Gillian Keith returns as the countess and as her would-be, hard up swain is the Wilhelm Meister to her Philine in Mignon a couple of years ago, American tenor Ryan MacPherson.

He is also in the two-character Saint-Saëns opera with French soprano Anne Sophie Duprels, which is sung in French (English titles). The Gounod is performed in an English translation and Stephen Barlow conducts both in his second year as festival artistic director.

Duprels swaps one rarity for another of sorts next Wednesday, possibly the first live/ public outing (certainly extremely rare) of Poulenc’s monodrama La Voix Humaine in its piano version with French pianist par excellence Pascal Rogé since the composer banned performances of it.