To plug the gap left by the cancellation of its live events this year, Buxton Festival has launched a digital version. BIF Digital 2020 comprises thirteen musical and literary events, posted online at buxtonfestival.co.uk at a rate of one a day.
Rossini's La Donna del Lago, based on Walter Scott's The Lady of the Lake, was to have been the headline opera this year, now postponed till 2021. Here, Festival Artistic Director Adrian Kelly talks to the opera's director Jacopo Spirei, with whom he has worked before on a number of productions, about his approach to directing opera and his first impressions of Buxton Opera House.
First, a taste of the opera itself, the Act I duet 'Sei già sposa', from two of the lead singers, Nico Darmanin, tenor, and Máire Flavin, soprano, and Kelly at the piano, recorded in lockdown in two separate locations. The voices are oversized for their respective domestic settings, of course, but that's not the point. They'll sound thrilling on stage. The change of mood from the barnstorming opening to the quieter, more intimate mood of the second half is a corner neatly turned.
Kelly starts the discussion by asking Spirei how he sets about planning a production. Spirei replies that he begins with the score and by listening to the music, then uses his first impressions as the basis for research into the composer's life and the period in which they worked. It is, he says, impossible to have a non-personal interpretation, but he tries not to be too specific at the beginning, leaving room for contributions from the performers. He tries to take a position of leading the artists in their own research, so finding new routes into the material. The result is never one person's ideas. He doesn't like tense environments, but enjoys working 'a bit outside my comfort zone'. And the show continues to develop, even after ten or twenty performances.
Kelly asks how his first look at the Opera House informed his approach. Spirei tries not to have too many ideas to begin with; in a way he is building a site-specific work. He was 'incredibly surprised' by Buxton Opera House, comparing its intimate feel, though not its physical size, with that of the Teatro San Carlo, Naples, where La Donna del Lago was premiered in 1819.
Rossini's serious operas, observes Kelly, are experimental, with plenty of virtuosic arias and ensembles. Do the vocal fireworks make it harder to keep the intimacy between the characters? His serious work, Spirei replies, is more elaborate than his comic operas, surreal and realistic at the same time. The fireworks are never there just to impress, but Rossini finds the balance – the emotional clashes are translated into vocal fire. When Kelly comments that the composer was innovative and stretched boundaries, and that the bel canto style of Bellini and Donizetti was his legacy, Spirei replies 'without Rossini we wouldn't have all the composers that followed'.
Changing tack, Kelly refers to the Buxton tradition of staging lesser-known operas by established composers, then asks 'is there anything you are itching to do?' Spirei reveals that he is dying to do some Wagner, 'because Italians are always kept away from it'. Also in his sights are Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann, Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges, and there's 'a lot of twentieth century repertoire I would love to touch'.
Asked about 'the visceral experience of being part of an audience', and how he sees that changing, post-COVID, Spirei compares the difference between digital and live events to reading about a kiss and the real thing. Both are valid but there is a very fundamental difference. There have been good efforts, and it is interesting to see online performances and have discussions. It is all very helpful, 'but it's something around the core of what we do'. Opera is a great art form with limitless potential. Art and artists are a crucial part of society, and we are losing a little bit of the sense of how a society is helped. Art and artists make society a better place and help create a safer environment, opening minds and making better citizens. Each performance is a unique event, where we arrive not knowing what will happen, he adds.
To wrap things up, Kelly enthuses about the way BIF Digital 2020 will keep the connection with the Festival audiences, making him even more excited about the prospect of coming back, 'and we will never take it for granted again'.
Copyright © 16 July 2020