Friday, 19 July 2019

Linley, Mozart, Paisello, Martín y Soler, Storace, Cavendish - Georgiana (Buxton, 2019)

Thomas Linley, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Giovanni Paisiello, Martín y Soler, Stephen Storace, Georgiana Cavendish - Georgiana

Buxton International Festival, 2019

Mark Tatlow, Matthew Richardson, Samantha Clarke, Ben Hulett, Susanna Fairbairn, Olivia Ray, Geoffrey Dolton, Katherine Aitken, Aled Hall, Rhys Thomas

Buxton Opera House - 12th July 2019

"So modern so delightful, so daring so wicked. They'll all go to hell", the playwright Richard Sheridan and politician Charles James Fox observe as the scandal of the Georgiana Cavendish, the 5th Duchess of Devonshire captures the imagination of the gossiping public in 1782, and judging by the reception of Buxton Festival's new opera Georgiana, it still has the capacity of wickedness and daring to delight a modern audience. Particularly as it's a subject that is close to home in Buxton considering the importance of the Cavendish family to the Peak District spa town, making it an ideal subject for a new opera in the 40th year of the Buxton Festival.

Well, sort of new. Unless you want to go down the direction of Thomas Adès and his treatment of the scandal of the Duchess of Argyll in his daring opera Powder her Face, you'd like to keep the music as close to the period as possible. The idea of imitating or creating a pastiche of 18th century music isn't really a credible option, but who needs to when it's all already been written and there is already the convention of the pasticcio opera, making use of existing arias and pieces, cutting and pasting them from a variety of sources, making a patchwork of the best of the best.

The idea of a pasticcio or patchwork opera however gives the impression of something thrown together and nothing could be further from the truth about Georgiana. Instead of simply taking arias expressing generic sentiments and stitching them together with recitative to make a new variation of a typical baroque opera plot, Buxton's new Artistic Director Michael Williams has created a new libretto from a text by playwright Janet Plater and set it to a selection of period and dramatically appropriate music compiled by musical director Mark Tatlow. Rather than go for the obvious and familiar, Tatlow selects lesser known pieces by Thomas Linley (the "English Mozart" who died at the age of 22), Mozart, Giovanni Paisello, Martín y Soler, Stephen Storace and even a piece attributed to Georgiana Cavendish herself.

There's nothing here consequently that feels like it's been patched together. The music has a wonderful musical and dramatic consistency that flows marvellously and feels entirely 'new', perfectly suited to the period and the situations developed in the opera. The libretto too is a delight (modern, daring and wicked indeed enough to satisfy Fox and Sheridan), never feeling for forced or mannered, but clever and witty, capturing the nature of the characters and moving the drama along. There are a few nods and winks to the modern audience, such making fun of the absurd idea of Georgiana's lover Earl Charles Grey having a tea named after him, but there is never any sense of parody or making fun of the pasticcio.

Even the idea of establishing an appropriate tone has been carefully considered, aiming - ambitiously, but why not? - towards a two-act dramma giacoso in the style of Don Giovanni. Goodness knows there's enough scandalous affairs and outrageous behaviour in the life of Georgiana Cavendish, the opera in the first act covering her growing gambling debts kept secret from her husband, the ménage-á-trois relationship that scandalises the Ton High Society when Lady Bess Foster moves in with Georgiana and the Duke, and Georgiana's involvement in the political advancement of Charles Fox and her affair with Earl Grey. The first Act culminates in a typically Mozart farcical ensemble where Georgiana confesses that she is pregnant by Grey while Bess turns out to be pregnant at the same time by the Georgiana's husband the Duke of Devonshire.

The first half of the opera is an absolute delight, perfectly judged in terms of music and drama and superbly played by the musicians of the Northern Chamber Orchestra under Mark Tatlow, acted and sung with verve and flair by an exceptional cast. The handling of the material ensures that there's a perfect balance in the tone between the dramatic content and the characterisation of it, causing scandal on one side, delighting the likes of Fox and Sheridan with enough gossip to keep them in demand in society and in inspiration for plays, but also in the devil-may-care attitude of Georgiana and Bess, and the Duke too when he finds the arrangements rather to his liking.

The second half is no less fun, but the dramatic charge doesn't carry through quite as entertainingly and isn't quite as well-constructed. The idea of the Devonshires and the secrets of the parentage of their children provide more scandal and gossip, but it gets a little repetitive. Georgiana's debts continue to mount and she becomes ill and dies quite suddenly without there being much leading up to it. The variety of musical situations and the singing performances ensure however that interest never flags throughout.

Jon Morrell's set design and Matthew Richardson's direction also contributes to making sure that this is never anything less than marvellous entertainment. Set in the shape that suggests the famous Devonshire Dome, one of the great architectural creations in the town, or perhaps in the shape of the Crescent (currently being painstakingly restored, provoking an in-joke about when it will ever be finished), or made of stone from the town's famous quarries, it definitely resonated with a Buxton audience. It also had a simple beautiful elegance that perfectly matched the musical arrangements, with silhouette cut-outs and suitable props as required.

There was not a single compromise in the conception or execution of Georgiana, this was simply a superb new opera creation. The singing too was wise to the dramma giocoso nature of the work, finding a good balance between good-natured wicked comic caricature of Aled Hall's Fox and Geoffrey Dolton's Sheridan, and the rather more serious nature of Samantha Clarke's Georgiana with her enlightened liberal attitudes and lust for living that would inevitably lead to near-ruin and a tragic end. Ben Hulett's Duke of Devonshire was also notable for some fine singing. Everything about Georgiana just oozes classy, quality opera, and it surely deserves to reach a wider audience after this critically acclaimed opening at the Buxton Festival.

Links: Buxton International Festival