This year sees Buxton International Festival celebrating its 40th year with four operas being performed in an eclectic mix including a reimagined old favourite in Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, the much less well known Lucio Papirio dittatore by Antonio Caldara, and the world premiere of Georgiana, a pastiche on various composers that tells the scandalous story of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. As exciting as these other operas promise to be, the opening night of the festival began with Tchaikovsky's tried and tested Eugene Onegin.

Gaynor Keeble (Madame Larina), Ceri Williams (Filippyenva) and chorus © Genevieve Girling
Gaynor Keeble (Madame Larina), Ceri Williams (Filippyenva) and chorus
© Genevieve Girling

This was a wise choice for the cosy but beautifully ornate and intimate opera house at Buxton. The golden decorative reliefs of the refurbished Victorian theatre acted as an extension of the set, lending an aristocratic grandeur to an otherwise minimalistic backdrop. Jamie Manton's was not a production that focussed on big production sets, costumes, special effects, lighting or props. The emphasis was clearly on the music and the narrative, and the cast, musicians and crew can rest assured that they delivered on both counts with aplomb. I was captivated by the portrayals of Tatyana and Olga by Shelley Jackson and Angharad Lyddon respectively, as well as by George Humphreys as the eponymous Onegin. The chorus ensembles were rousing and there were some strong cameo performances too.

Indeed, there were no weaknesses musically at all. The pit orchestra were The Northern Chamber Orchestra and I was impressed with how tight they were throughout the evening, under the baton of Adrian Kelly, with perfectly pitched French horn introductions and some gorgeously sonorous cello passages. They were wonderfully supported by the Buxton Festival Chorus, who brought alive the rich Russian folk singing, with the expansive flavour of the Orthodox choral tradition that can be detected in the opening ensemble of the opera.

George Humphreys (Onegin) and Shelley Jackson (Tatyana) © Genevieve Girling
George Humphreys (Onegin) and Shelley Jackson (Tatyana)
© Genevieve Girling

The solo performers were all excellent, dramatically and vocally. Angharad Lyddon played Olga with a carefree and ebullient joie de vivre that enchanted, and her melodious mezzo-soprano was crystal clear. In contrast we were treated to a masterclass of melancholy by superb American soprano Shelley Jackson in the role of Tatyana. The first act of Onegin is something of an endurance test for a soprano in this role, but Jackson was up to it, never faltering and delivering in emotion and power in equal measure. She held my complete attention throughout. Nor did she overdo it, saving her very best for the final scene where she really staked her claim as the star of the show. Both of these singers have been accruing accolades recently, with Lyddon being a finalist in the 2019 Cardiff Singer of the World competition, and Jackson runner up in the Maria Callas International Grand Prix in 2017. It is easy to hear why.

I found George Humphreys brought something to the role of Onegin that I have not encountered elsewhere. For the first time I liked Onegin. A little, at least. I have hitherto found Pushkin’s title character a thoroughly vain and selfish man, who frankly deserves what comes to him. But in Humphreys’ performance, I felt sympathy for him. Not only was he able to enlighten the character, he also sang with an understated baritone that emanated a warmth of timbre that suited his portrayal. David Webb provided an equally adept performance as Lensky, Olga’s fiancé, and Joe Doody gave us an estimable rendition in the cameo role of Monsieur Triquet. But if one cameo came close to stealing the show it was Joshua Bloom, the American bass playing Prince Gremin. His breath control was superb, his deep voice filled the auditorium with power and resonance. I would love to see and hear him in a bigger role.

David Webb (Lensky) and Angharad Kyddon (Olga) © Genevieve Girling
David Webb (Lensky) and Angharad Kyddon (Olga)
© Genevieve Girling

Although the production emphasis was on the music, singing and acting, rather than expensive staging, lighting and set, I should note that Jasmine Rickets’ choreography was rather convincing despite not being overcomplicated. Buxton Opera House has a relatively small stage, with something of a precarious drop into the orchestra pit, and the chorus scenes did seem rather cramped at times. However, a young child practising her ballet positions, some serfs sweeping the yard and gathering in the harvest, were simple but effective ways of transporting us with the narrative to the scenery of 19th-century rural Russia.

All in all, this was a very enjoyable introduction to this 40th anniversary of the Buxton International Festival. It is an opera that is played straight, without any novel innovations or overblown production values, but delivers where it matters most – in the music and performances.

****1