There can be little doubt that two principal draws of the Buxton Festival are the annual opportunity to experience little-known and sometimes totally unheard-of repertoire and composers, and forgotten repertoire by familiar composers; the co-operation of such a festival committee, patrons and backers that supports the production of rare works is a gift to any artistic director – especially one as imaginative as Stephen Barlow, whose powerful lungs have blown the dust from many a neglected score. Naturally, not every resurrected piece can be a winner, and a conductor has to trust in the convictions of his choices (presumably influenced by his own private passions) and hope that an audience will be sympathetic to the cause, accepting in good grace that the conductor has taken a chance for the benefit of the music and this, I think, is part of the fun – being perhaps the first audiences to hear a long-untouched work. Tonight’s double offering of two short works by Saint-Saëns (La princesse jaune) and Gounod (La colombe) was a 50% success.

La Colombe
La Colombe

Opening with Saint-Saëns’ La princesse jaune (“The Yellow Princess”), this short one-acter from 1872, the second of his thirteen operas, capitalised on the 19th-century western enthusiasm for all things Japanese (consider British contributions The Mikado and The Geisha), but here I think – for me at least – the amusement stopped: the work is weak on all fronts, dramatically, musically, in its libretto and in its two characters, Léna and her cousin Kornélis. Imagine a decaying, untidy French garrett – La bohème’s Rodolfo might be living next door – Kornélis, sung by Ryan MacPherson, is obsessed with a painting of Ming the Yellow Princess and all things exotic evoked in hallucinogenic dreams. Meanwhile, Léna, played by Anne-Sophie Duprels, is in love with him. The plot unfolds through a series of short solo scenes and duets in which images of the east are expressed in a verbose, musically inexpressive and unfulfilling score. The set design, romantically ramshackled, was alluring, but that was about all the production had to commend, it as the singing also let down the music – though fortunately, not because of the singers. Saint-Saëns’ vocal writing was awkward with occasionally difficult navigation of tessitura, MacPherson finding top notes hard work and Duprels’ music simply not being very interesting. Acting was good on the whole with elements of comedy employed effectively, but neither singer seemed to act and sing – it was either one or the other, and consequently the drama was somewhat static and slow. Though I am generally falling over myself to hear performances of Saint-Saëns’ music, this score could happily be sent to the Bibliothèque Nationale as a paperweight.

To follow this, however, was Gounod’s sparkling and charming La colombe (The Dove). A silly story of social politics and unrequited love made right, the music is free from flawed attempts at eastern evocation and can therefore satisfy itself to its own ends. Surely as part of a savvy Buxton economy drive, the set was designed as if it was downstairs from the attic of the Saint-Saëns, and presented a bigger but largely unfurnished room with windows, a table and a birdcage complete with a real dove. Mazet, a trouser role for alto Emma Carrington, and his master Horace (played by Ryan MacPherson) are penniless, but when Maître Jean (played by Buxton favourite bass Jonathan Best), butler to the beautiful Sylvia, arrives to purchase Horace’s beloved pet dove for his mistress, their poverty doesn’t look so long-lasting. Carrington was excellent throughout the work, singing and acting with aplomb and squeezing as much humour as possible from her ample part, while Best, whose crystal-clear diction, intonation and warm colouring through the voice always make for pleasurable listening, sang well but was somewhat static in action – his movements were kept to an absolute minimum and he delivered his arias in almost recital-like fashion. MacPherson was offered a much better opportunity to show us what he is capable of in this much more interesting part with better music, and he sang well, with conviction and interest. Finally Sylvia, sung by Gillian Keith, displayed the best singing of the evening – coupled with an assured characterisation of the scheming aristocrat, her light voice was perfectly suited to the whimsical style of the music.

In both works the orchestra played well and Barlow drew as much from the scores as he was able – what Saint-Saëns left out, Gounod more than made up for.