BBC Music Magazine
Jeremy Pound tests the water in this Derbyshire town, where opera rarities and wandering royals all add a little colour to the festival scene
Jeremy Pound heads to Buxton International Festival
As I make my way from the station towards the opera house, Mary, Queen of Scots passes me in the other direction. ‘Good day to you, Sir,’ she says. I doff my imaginary cap in reply. At the opera house itself, I spy another figure with regal connections. Sitting at a table beneath the shade of a gazebo is Charles, Ninth Earl Spencer and brother of the late Diana, Princess of Wales. He’s looking very relaxed as he smiles and chats to a small group of admirers. Lovely.
No, I’m not having some odd time-lapse royalty dream. I have, in fact, just arrived at the Buxton International Festival – or BIF, as it is fondly referred to – a two weeklong celebration of music and literature in this immaculately presented Peak District town that comes complete with all manner of fringe performances and other on-street jollities. Mary, Queen of Scots is (I presume) an actress in costume; Charles Spencer, who is here to talk about his new book, is very much the real thing.
The town of Buxton is familiar to many for its spring water, bottles of which line supermarket shelves across the UK. Without it, the place would certainly look very different. Though Buxton’s origins date back to Roman times, it was in the 1770s that the fifth Duke of Devonshire, owner of nearby Chatsworth House, decided to stick some of his vast wealth
Buxton Opera House is a model of pintsized performance venue perfection
into developing it into a spa resort. His investment resulted in buildings such as the Great Stables – later topped by a fine dome – and, inspired by the famous example in Bath, the Buxton Crescent.
The Victorians added the Natural Mineral Baths and the Pump Room, next to which stands St Ann’s Well – a later addition from which today’s visitors can help themselves to a taste of the water itself.
And then, in 1903, came Buxton
Opera House. Seating around 900 and beautifully furnished, it’s the very model of pint-sized performance venue perfection, though hasn’t always been cherished as much as it ought. Within a couple of decades of opening, it found itself used as a cinema and, by 1976, was in danger of closing completely. Thankfully, someone saw sense, and a major restoration saw this fine building returned its original purpose.
That was 1979, the year of the first ever Buxton Festival. Alongside Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor on the stage on that occasion was Maxwell Davies’s The Two Fiddlers, and the festival has continued to explore lesser-known works ever since – such as Alzira, Verdi’s rarely staged tale of Peruvian revolutionary derring-do, which I enjoy during my visit. ‘We like to feature undiscovered gems, brand new works and also operas for young people,’ festival CEO Michael Williams tells me. ‘But also, when we do cover popular operas, we go for ones in, say, the top 25 that we think could do with a good outing rather than the really big-hitters – we don’t have plans to stage
La bohème or La traviata, for instance.’
At the 40th-anniversary festival this coming July, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin will be joined by Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, Caldara’s Lucio Papirio Dittatore and Allan Stephenson’s The Orphans of Koombu. And then there’s Georgiana, a new pasticcio opera in which the fruity exploits of Georgiana Cavendish, Fifth Duchess of Devonshire, are relived through music by Mozart, Paisiello, Soler, Linley and Storace.
But BIF is not only about opera.
The festival’s literature strand attracts impressive names, and the programme of concerts at St John’s Church and the Pavilion Arts Centre is as varied as it is imaginative. Either side of my evening at the opera, I treat myself to two lunchtime concerts, one of flute, oboe and piano music, and the other of American songs performed by irrepressible mezzo Lucy Schaufer. 2019’s festival, meanwhile, will see the likes of pianist Imogen Cooper, Voces8 and, for the first time ever, the BBC Philharmonic paying a visit.
Outside concert and opera time, simply ambling around and taking in some of the fringe events proves time well spent. I’m particularly taken, for instance, with an innovative theatre group’s witty potted guide to Shakespeare plays. Strangely, though, Mary, Queen of Scots, isn’t here to enjoy the handiwork of her Tudor-era contemporary. She must have headed off, I chuckle to myself. Ho ho.
Further information: This year’s Buxton International Festival runs from 5-21 July buxtonfestival.co.uk