If you suspend belief, not an unusual exercise in opera, that the French Revolution did not, in fact take place in the 1790s but in the 1930s, Buxton Festival’s staging of Dvořák’s opera is a runaway triumph.
The first night audience thought so to go by the reception at the final curtain. The glory of the production in every respect is the execution of the music magnificently conducted by Stephen Barlow with belief in, not to say love of, every note. Indeed, the reception appeared to leave him on the verge of blubbing.
But then, the finale of this opera with the haunting theme of Benda’s serenade ringing out triumphantly can do that to you.
With one curious exception, his cast is superb. Although she sings the beautiful lullaby in act three well enough, the normally excellent French soprano Anne Sophie Duprels often looks and sounds dramatically and vocally uneasy (caused by performing in English, perhaps?) as Julie, the wife of the returning self-exiled Bohuš, a virile voiced, John Cleese look-a-like in Nicholas Lester.
Nicholas Folwell avoids letting Count Harasova’s lascivious steward Filip slip into comic caricature and James McOran-Campbell was a notable discovery as the scheming Adolf. Andrew Greenan’s resonant, black-voiced Count was made even more impressive by the fact that he learnt the role at very short notice in three days after Matthew Best became ill.
The highly reputed, now veteran Bonaventura Bottone contributes a delightfully characterised and sung performance as the local choirmaster Benda, and the two young lovers, Anna Patalong’s Terinka and Matthew Newlin’s Jiří are well matched, although the latter is a trifle short on lung power at times.
The open-throated singing of the 16-member Festival Chorus is simply outstanding and all the more so when the same number of amazingly talented representatives from the Kinder Children’s Choir joins in. Similarly, the playing of the augmented Northern Chamber Orchestra is terrific to the extent that you tend to forget a slight shortage of higher string sound.
Essentially, Stephen Unwin’s well-oiled production it is not time-specific. The villager/ peasants could belong to any era or country in the last 250 years or so and there are next to no props to date it, beyond an upright piano in act two and the 1930s/ 40s costuming of four characters, although why Filip is done up militaristically seems a total irrelevance.