Saturday, 14 July 2012

Buxton Festival: Intermezzo and Double Bill; ROH: Otello

The Crescent in Buxton, currently under restoration
I was at the Buxton Festival at the beginning of the week for a refreshing couple of days away from London. It was my first visit, and I was charmed by the town and greatly enjoyed the two shows I saw (here's my review). Hailing as I do from Bath, I found the parallels between that spa town and Buxton, both of which were favoured first by the Romans and then much later by pleasure-seeking Georgians, striking. And, if the Crescent in Buxton is not quite as  grand as the Bath's more famous Royal Crescent, it is extremely beautiful in its more modest proportions, while, if anything, the rest of the town's 'resort' buildings are better  preserved, and less spoilt by subsequent expansion. Buxton also, of course, boasts the beautiful Frank Matcham Opera House, also modest in scale and--a relief for eyes weary of the Coliseum's brand of music-hall bling--decoration. (Apologies for the rather grey photo: the British summer is no more present in Derbyshire, it seems, than anywhere else)

The Opera House

I was particularly pleased finally to have seen Strauss's Intermezzo (I'd not made it to the Scottish Opera's production last season). I admit to having lazily appropriated some of the standard criticisms of the work, which I allude to in my review, particularly since the piece seems to undercut and tacitly criticize some of the highfalutin' metaphysics of Die Frau ohne Schatten, an opera to which I've devoted rather a lot of time over the years. I do still find something a little uncomfortable about the sheer brazenness of Intermezzo's autobiographical elements, but the work articulates Strauss's no-nonsense, modern attitude towards his life and his profession, and a challenge to our 19th-century attitudes to what a composer should be: to the idea of the super-human creator for whom the challenges of everyday life and relationships are mere trifles when compared with the dictates of the Weltgeist. Intermezzo also, as Tim Ashley notes in his review, has at its centre about as nuanced and human protagonist as exists in opera: Christine represents a wonderfully complex and real character (based, of course, on Strauss's wife), whose spiky, truculent surface is shown to mask a tangled web of insecurities beneath.

I don't know if Intermezzo will ever really make it beyond the periphery of the repertoire, and I fear that its delicately moving conclusion doesn't quite deliver the emotional payload to justify all that fearsomely difficult orchestral writing. But I'll certainly endeavour to see it again whenever I can. In the meantime, as the rain continues to pour outside, I suggest putting the feet up in front of the gently glowing fire of the oft-extracted 'Träumerei am Kamin', from towards the end of Act 1, surely one of Strauss's most eloquent evocations of domestic bliss.

Finally, a quick mention of the Royal Opera's stonking revival of Otello, which opened on Thursday (here's my review). London's waited rather a long time to hear Anja Harteros this season, and, unless my memory's playing tricks, I don't think she'd actually been heard at Covent Garden since her debut as Amelia in Simon Boccanegra four years ago. It was certainly worth the wait, and Aleksandrs Antonenko also delivered the goods as Otello. I'm too young to be obliged to recall Domingo et al. in this production, but on its own terms this leading couple was pretty sensational. Verdi, with Antonio Pappano's help, was also able to remind us, after the flawed, sprawling grandeur of Troyens, of the sort of concise, tautly paced drama that's achievable in an opera house. 

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