Buxton International Festival: Home-grown operas served up with a twist

Quality is at the heart of the festivals home-grown operas, says Stephen Barlow. Photo: Chris Christodoulou.
Quality is at the heart of the festivals home-grown operas, says Stephen Barlow. Photo: Chris Christodoulou.

Stephen Barlow, artistic director of Buxton International Festival, is justifiably proud of the event’s three, home-grown productions, Verdi’s tragic drama Macbeth, Britten’s small-town comedy Albert Herring and Mozart’s flamboyant early opera Lucio Silla.

Festival productions tend to have a twist so the Verdi Macbeth is the pithy original version, more successful in his lifetime than the subsequent revision but neglected in recent years.

Stephen Barlow

Stephen Barlow

“There is the idea that if a composer revises it he must have rethought it for the good but I don’t believe that’s true necessarily,” says Stephen, describing it as “fiery, fast-moving and exciting”.

He calls Britten’s Albert Herring “the only really genuine operatic comedy of the 20th century” but promises: “People will genuinely laugh at the same time as cry because it is a painful piece as well”.

Meanwhile Lucio Silla, a love story set in ancient Rome, was written when Mozart was just 16: “He was showing off ruthlessly, showing that he can write an opera seria to equal the best.”

Making these productions even more special is the talent behind them. Macbeth is to be directed by the world-renowned Elijah Moshinsky and features “wonderfully intense” Stephen Gadd, “one of our most underrated baritones in this country” as Macbeth.

Albert Herring marks the return of director Francis Matthews, whose 2016 production of Tamerlano was nominated for a Manchester Theatre Award.

It features a “phenomenal cast” and what could be a breakthrough role for Bradley Smith as Albert Herring, the greengrocer’s son who becomes a May King.

“I was looking for somebody very young, very musical, very interesting and intelligent and I found him,” says Stephen.

Lucio Silla reunites Tamerlano team conductor Laurence Cummings and The English Concert under director Harry Silverstein from Chicago.

Stephen says: “He has a very special way with Mozart. The reaction I always want when I go to a director... is real exuberance and excitement, and I got that from Harry.”

As befits the festival’s international standing, the operas feature several foreign singers making their UK debuts including Czech soprano Karolína Plicková in Lucio Silla and Moldovan-born, Moscow-trained bass, Oleg Tsibulko, as Banco in Macbeth.

Stephen says: “He has a quality in his voice that we don’t produce here… Eastern and Russian men and women sing in a totally different way.”

He believes in casting the net and is concerned about Brexit: “It’s not so long ago when every foreign artist had to go through the Home Office and if you needed someone very late it was a real problem.

“We don’t really know what kind of a deal any of them are going to make… I think it’s going to be messy.”

Clearly the festival has no problem attracting stars but growing the audience is important too. Stephen looks for “lesser known rather than rare” operas, while also putting on well-known treats such as Albert Herring but “doing it in a style - like with our casting - that makes it quite special.”

For all that, he says: “We offer some of the cheapest opera tickets in the country and still we don’t find it so easy to broaden and widen our audiences.”

He adds: “We need to draw more people who are prepared to help us grow and that all depends on the quality of the product.

“That’s the heart of it. If we put on quality then people get interested… we need the town to come out.”