Patriotism, the ageing process, nostalgia for young love, the restorative power of music – common sense suggests there are far too many themes lurking beneath The Jacobin, Dvořák’s rarely performed opera of estrangement and reconciliation. And yet, judging by this Buxton Festival production, you can’t help sensing a consistency and seamlessness that surmount its length (three hours including two intervals), its thematic diversity and all-too-simple personalities. The music justifies everything – an unceasing generosity of melody “that soothes our heart and warms our soul”, according to one of the gloriously lyrical choruses in Rodney Blumer’s neat English translation. With a music teacher playing the pivotal role, Dvořák clearly had fun writing The Jacobin: the tinges of sweet sadness that characterise so much late-19th-century Bohemian music are always balanced by boisterous dances and moments of genuine musical comedy.
All this is meat and drink to opera fans. The very un-commercial, slightly recherché quality of The Jacobin helps to define Buxton as a festival destination and make it worth the effort to get there, and it’s always a pleasure to be reunited with Matcham’s elegantly intimate Buxton Opera House. The performance itself is unobjectionably adequate. Stephen Unwin’s staging, in simple designs by Jonathan Fensom, half-heartedly suggests the 1930s, with brownshirts making a perfunctory appearance in the last act. It’s hard to see what this adds – and it sits oddly with the quaint social milieu of Marie Červinková-Riegrová’s libretto, which abounds in quasi-feudal deference to age and social rank.
But to Unwin’s credit, nothing interferes with the music, which is lustily, sometimes imprecisely championed by the Northern Chamber Orchestra and Buxton Festival Chorus under Stephen Barlow. Benda, the music teacher, is endearingly portrayed by Bonaventura Bottone: this is a part that could easily be mugged and cheapened, but Bottone gives the character dignity without underselling the pedantry. As the “junior” pair of lovers, Matthew Newlin and Anna Patalong show sweet promise, but the rest of the cast – including Nicholas Lester and Anne Sophie Duprels as the “senior” lovers, with Nicholas Folwell and Matthew Best in baritone and bass parts – struggle to develop beyond archetypes.