The High Peaks Festival, a thinly disguised version of a real-life event happening not a million miles from Buxton Opera House, is staging a revival of a forgotten eighteenth-century opera, Romolo ed Ersilia. Backstage life has been a rich source of material for centuries, and Viva la Diva offers an entertaining, often hilarious, view of the bumpy road from casting to eventual staging – Buxton Opera House, Buxton, UK, 10 July 2022. Incidentally, Romolo ed Ersilia actually exists; in fact, there are two: Metastasio's libretto was set by both Johann Hasse and Josef Mysliveček.
A co-production with Salzburg State Theatre, Viva la Diva is a re-working of Donizetti's Le Convenienze ed Inconvenienze Teatrali - 'Theatrical conventions and mishaps' is one possible translation - with an English text by Kit Hesketh-Harvey for the dialogue and some of the vocal numbers.
Act I, set in a dingy rehearsal room, sees three hopefuls arriving for auditions: a nervous young soprano fresh from college (Olivia Carrell), whose name, Alexa, prompts repeated interruptions by the domestic robot of the same name, a joke all the better for not being over-stretched, established Czech mezzo Vanamaka Zonnendanz (Lauren Young), and Ray, a baritone (Quentin Hayes) who cuts a sorry figure at first, but eventually finds his niche as deputy stage manager.
The company they join is presided over by Richard Burkhard's smarmy, and financially dubious, impresario Lord Conor Chetham, and Braithwaite S Merchant (Eliot Carter Hines), the highly-strung director heavily into method acting and experimental staging. Add to the mix a rival star soprano, known simply as L'assoluta, or The German Prima Donna (Jenny Stafford), inseparable from her lapdog; Italian tenor Nicola Strapagato (Joseph Doody); and Haakan Czestikov, Vanamaka Zonnendanz's boyfriend and source of major sponsorship for the Festival, who ends up standing in when Strapagato storms off.
The cherry on the cake is Lady Agatha Wigan, a baritone-in-drag role in Donizetti's original, here the towering, imperious figure of George Humphreys. Alexa's mother, with some minor operatic experience in her younger days, she arrives intent on pulling strings to get her daughter a role higher up the cast-list. The fact that she is Chair of the Festival's Board of Trustees may have some bearing on this, as well. When both prima donnas also walk out, there's no choice but to cast Agatha in the lead. But that prompts ructions of its own. And there's a Big Reveal to come.
Kit Hesketh-Harvey's text is crammed with in-jokes and local references (and a viola joke I'd not heard before), as it takes aim at a whole gamut of operatic nuisances. Some of the targets may be obvious – clashing egos, dodgy business dealings, and so on – but it's all done with great verve and energy. In any case, as director Stephen Medcalf told us in the pre-opera talk, every event in the show, however seemingly far-fetched, is based on an actual incident. Then there are the interminable cadenzas, the pointless chorus movements – a troop of Romans soldiers straight out of Monty Python – , the comments from the orchestra pit that are not meant to be overheard, and the ineptly translated side-titles: 'the angry and celibate duck still wanted more' is an image that will stay with me for a very long time.
Conductor Iwan Davies, as well as having his own stage role, as Dr Huw Watt, the – er – conductor, keeps Donizetti's score bouncing along, with the Northern Chamber Orchestra relishing every minute.
Act I does start to feel as though it is running out of steam towards the end, but Act II, on stage for a dress-rehearsal, pulls everything back into focus.
Trying to untangle the plot intricacies will make your head spin. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.
Copyright © 21 July 2022