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The Boatswain's Mate

Ethel Smyth, after W W Jacobs

Buxton International Festival

Pavilion Arts Centre, Buxton

July 8,14,19, 2024; 1 hr 20 mins

Elizabeth Findon as Mrs Waters in The Boatswain's Mate at Buxton International Festival cr Genevieve Girling
Elizabeth Findon as Mrs Waters in The Boatswain's Mate at Buxton International Festival. All pics: Genevieve Girling
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One of two smaller-scale comedy productions at Buxton International Festival this year, The Boatswain's Mate is the only English-language opera on offer.

The production employs principals who are in the chorus or minor roles in the big Verdi show, with “BIF Young Artists” or “Young Instrumentalists” as chorus and in accompaniment.

It’s a bit neither-fish-nor-fowl, starting off with spoken dialogue and folk-ballad style songs, later becoming through-sung, and in this version is heard with a piano trio rather than orchestra; but it’s all done with enthusiasm and gets laughs when it should.

Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) – a suffragette and friend of Emmeline Pankhurst – is getting a second slice of fame today, seen as a proto-feminist, and the story of The Boatswain's Mate neatly shows a resourceful woman getting one over on a man who’s a bit of a pest.

She’s a country pub landlady and he, a retired boatswain, keeps asking her to be his wife: but she doesn’t either need or fancy him. He tries to engineer his way into her affections by staging a supposed burglary of the pub by an ex-Army man who turns up – it’s meant to be a case of hero rescues fair lady, but she realises what’s going on and not only foils the plan but nearly has her nefarious suitor arrested by the local bobby.

In Nick Bond’s production, Ned the ex-soldier (Theo Perry) arrives with rucksack on his back and Ordnance Survey map in hand, so I guess the location’s been transferred to Buxton and he’s a hiker (not the first time that idea’s been used there). Elliott Squire’s staging creates the pub deftly, with a small bar and a handful of tables and stools, and there are nice touches like the way the beer glasses go flying when the “burglar” climbs in.

The principal singers are out to show their operatic firepower. If anything, Elizabeth Findon’s voice is a bit too big for the small auditorium of the Pavilion at Buxton, but she has some gorgeous top notes and acts with skill. Joshua Baxter (Harry the suitor) is a tenor of real tonal quality, and Richard Woodall (policeman) an imposing bass.

The members of the small male chorus play their parts well, and musical director and pianist Rebecca Warren, ever-efficient, leads the trio (Matthew Chin and Harvey Kelly) in a sound that for those of a certain age may seem more Grand Hotel than country pub. But the music, loaded with ingenious pastiche, has more in it than you might think.

More info and tickets here


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