Updated: May 28, 2021
Janet Plater, Michael Williams and Mark Tatlow, after Mozart, Paisiello, Thomas Linley, Stephen Storace, Martín y Soler and Georgiana Cavendish
Buxton International Festival
Buxton Opera House
7 July 2019 - 20 July 2019; 2hr 30 min
While Manchester International Festival prides itself on its biennial ‘new work’ (sometimes less than complete, less than new or less than work), Buxton International Festival creates new productions every year. This time, in the 40th anniversary festival, it has created its own new work as well.
It’s a very interesting species, too. They’ve revived the genre of ‘pasticcio’ opera – once common practice all over Europe – which is made by taking musical numbers from existing sources and giving them new words to fit a new plotline. In England the words would be in English, even if the arias and ensembles were originally in foreign-language opera, and there would be spoken dialogue and probably melodrama (speech with background music) as well.
The story here is that of Georgiana, Duchess to the 5th Duke of Devonshire – portrayed by Keira Knightley in the film, The Duchess – and it could hardly be more fitting for Buxton. Almost every stone and blade of grass in the town is connected to the denizens of Chatsworth in some way, or bears the name of Cavendish or Devonshire. In the old days the 11th Duke and Deborah, the Duchess, used to be at every festival first night in Buxton Opera House.
Georgiana, though, was an unusual Duchess. Fabulously good-looking – just look at Gainsborough’s portrait – she was a daughter of the Spencer family, as was Diana, Princess of Wales, in a later era. Funny, that: there were three people in her marriage, too.
When at first she failed to provide her husband with a male heir, she was joined in his affections and home life by Lady Elizabeth Foster (‘Bess’) – herself the victim of a time when even the noblest married women were their husband’s chattels, and, intriguingly, very good friends with Georgiana, who introduced her to him.
She formed her own extra-marital liaison too, with Charles Grey (later the Earl Grey of tea fame), who, fitting the style of the time, is played as a mezzo trouser-role here. Their daughter was not allowed to join the Cavendish home.
The film makes you feel Georgiana was a victim. She was, in many ways, but she was also a reckless gambler, socialite, political organizer and author. This scenario, by Buxton Festival CEO Michael Williams (who also penned the lyrics for the musical numbers) puts that side of her life in focus, fleshing out her many-sided character.
The music has been chosen by Mark Tatlow, who has achieved an extraordinary thing by making a pasticcio entirely of music Georgiana might or could have heard in her lifetime and adapting it to a tale that’s both comic and tragic.
They make a comedy duo of playwright Sheridan and politician Charles James Fox, and present the early part of Georgiana’s story with a broad, comic brush (though there are strongly dramatic entrance arias taken from Soler and Storace for Georgiana and her mother, and an appealing bit of Mozart to introduce the unhappy Duke).
We also get some popular songs of the period to suit the scenes of public life, one literally from The Beggars’ Opera, whose atmosphere percolates much of the first half of Georgiana.
But the impressive part of this compilation-piece comes later. As the story reaches its tragic culmination, Tatlow introduces his adaptation of Mozart’s wonderful concert aria, ‘Bella mia fiamma’, its chromaticisms bearing the weight of the Duchess’s feelings as she loses her daughter borne to Grey. And the ‘duettino’, adapted from Paisiello, for Georgiana and Bess as the friends (whom the scenario suggests had their own intimate relationship, too) prepare for the parting of death, is superbly chosen and was movingly sung by Samantha Clarke (Georgiana) and Susanna Fairbairn (Bess), under Tatlow’s tender direction.
There’s a touching detail, too, in the introduction to this one – it’s a tune, played on fortepiano by Mark Tatlow as maestro al cembalo, which apparently was the real Georgiana’s own composition.
This performance has been cast with very fine and experienced performers. Benjamin Hulett is powerful and particularly excellent in the florid runs of his Act 2 aria (taken from Linley’s The Duenna). Samantha Clarke and Susanna Fairbairn are wonderful singers and effective actors; Olivia Ray makes a very effective contribution as Lady Spencer (Georgiana’s mother); Katherine Aitken sings Grey beautifully and Rhys Alun Thomas makes a baleful Blackmailer; and Aled Hall and Geoffrey Dolton keep everything alive as Sheridan and Fox.
Matthew Richardson’s direction is sure-footed, clear and entertaining with a simple but effective set (design by Jon Morrell). It’s quite remarkable … and could even set an example for the future. Pasticcio lives again.