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Poverty can strangle the arts, but also stimulates them. The Buxton Festival sets an example. Money always seems in short supply here, but this summer’s main offerings, with minimal sets and unspectacular costumes, have provided plentiful stimulus for the imagination. Orfeo ed Euridice looks even more austere than the companion production of Dvorák’s The Jacobin – both operas celebrate the power of song to overcome life’s ills – but the Gluck performance is more effective at echoing the music’s richness.
Stephen Medcalf’s staging also underlines the simplicity of Gluck’s musico-dramatic schema, in a way we rarely see in metropolitan theatres – thus helping us to understand why this opera, so expressively compact and emotionally deep, was considered revolutionary at its earliest performances in the 1760s. Francis O’Connor’s set consists of nothing more than a group of illuminated block-letters signifying Orfeo’s (and later Amore’s) name, which are shifted and profiled like multipurpose props against a changing backdrop of pure-blue sky. Costuming is casual-modern, choreography (Paula O’Reilly) an attractive ritual of free movement – always, surprisingly, in harmony with Gluck’s dance music.
The very choice of opera, with a cast of three and chorus doubling as dancers, shows how resourceful Buxton has been. So far, so sympathetic. But there is one problem hanging over this production, and it concerns the casting of the central character. In his day Michael Chance was an effective Orpheus – remember him in ENO’s “nude” production with Leslie Garrett? – but that was 17 years ago and his countertenor now sounds threadbare, unable to mask some distinctly awkward changes of register. Matters aren’t helped by his portrayal as an ageing rock star. Chance is still musicianly, but I’d happily settle for a tenor, baritone or mezzo – anyone who can sing this glorious music to the standard it deserves.
Barbara Bargnesi makes a believably modern Euridice, and Daisy Brown justifies the enlarged role given here to Amore. Stuart Stratford conducts a brisk, sometimes prosaic reading of the original 1762 score (no Dance of the Furies or Blessed Spirits). But what Buxton proves is that even an under-resourced Orfeo can articulate Gluck’s expressive aims.