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Viva la Diva

Donizetti after Sografi, English version by Kit Hesketh-Harvey

Salzburg State Theatre in association with Buxton International Festival

Buxton Opera House

July 10, 14, 19, 21 and 23, 2022, 2 hr 55 min


La Diva unchained: Jenny Stafford as Ersilia in Buxton International Festival's Viva la Diva. All pics: Genevieve Girling


It’s good to see that Buxton International Festival can laugh at itself. Here we have an adaptation of material originally written to be a comic opera about opera, by Donizetti, turned into a tale of the auditions, rehearsals and final chaotic performance of a piece by the “High Peak Festival” – guess what that might be.

There’s the aspiring hopeful from the Royal Northern College of Music, the heavyweight star soprano with equally nasty minder from eastern Europe, the mezzo who flounces out to be replaced by the grande dame of the local musical scene, the tiny Italian tenor with a sore throat, the dodgy impresario who can’t quite find the cash to pay everyone on time, and the hapless director trying to hold it all together.

So far, so good – as ideas. In practice, Viva la Diva turns out to run 40 minutes longer than they estimated when the festival programme was printed, and it’s not quite as funny as it thinks it is. Maybe that’s to do with the inevitable in-jokes of opera singers sending themselves and their colleagues up, maybe it’s because Kit Hesketh-Harvey’s English words to fit around Donizetti’s tunes, full of internal rhymes and cleverness, still aren’t as tight as a script for a comic opera should be. He also gets extended mileage out of imagined absurd surtitle translations of an Italian libretto – OK first time, but not worth doing over and over. Maybe the extra length is to do with preparations for the second act, which is technically quite ambitious, but if you’re going to do an exercise in The Opera That Goes Wrong (as this does), you have to be sure we know which bits are gags and which are not.

There is a feeling of improv creeping in, as if the presence of a male in drag (George Humphreys, stealing the show as supposed contralto Lady Agatha Wigan), turns everything to panto in British theatreland.

Many of the rest of the cast are capable of strutting their stuff as genuine bel canto singers, and I suppose they need the opportunity to prove it, but the progress of the plot is slowed by rather too much Donizetti in the process.

So full marks to everyone for singing really well at times and acting funny at others, to conductor Iwan Davies and repetiteur Katie Wong for both being and portraying their roles, to the Northern Chamber Orchestra for both their excellent playing and for pretending to go on strike, and to director Stephen Medcalf and the technical team for everything that went wrong properly.


Tickets and info here