Shakespeare at Buxton Festival

This year marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. His plays have been transported into the opera (and ballet) world, and his poetry and sonnets are still well-known and read today. This year, Buxton Festival will be marking the anniversary with a number of writers/speakers, musicians and an opera that have all been inspired by Shakespeare!

How was Shakespeare pronounced? is the title of a talk by David Crystal who will explore the Shakespearean language on 10 July, while Andrew Dickson (his book cover of Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys around Shakespeare’s Globe at the top) on 17 July takes us on a journey to understand how Shakespeare’s works have found a home across the world, and the most unexpected of places. It doesn’t just end there – on 19 July, Assistant Director of Leonore, Ella Marchment, directs a performance based on the life of Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway – performed by Elin Pritchard (Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor 2015) – weaving together arias and songs that use Shakespearean text. A recital by tenor Nicky Spence, accompanied by Simon Lepper, As You Like It – Shakespeare Songs, offers a range of songs from Britten and Poulenc, to Purcell, Schubert and Tippett. Manchester Chamber Choir on 17 July features a selection of Shakespearean songs by Paul Mealor and Vaughan Williams (amongst others), and Buxton Festival Fringe’s Shakespeare Juke Box will be outside Buxton Opera House. One of the Festival operas this year is Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi (see it on 9, 13, 16, 20 & 23 July). Artistic Director Stephen Barlow recently wrote a piece in the Festival’s newsletter about Bellini and his opera, which is in fact based ‘on other Italian sources’. In case you missed it, here it is below.

Vincenzo Bellini was born in Catania at a time when Catania was a thriving city of grandeur, status and artistic fertility. His education was hardly all embracing, albeit there was a period when he was immersed in the music of Haydn and Mozart. Principally his life revolved around the music of contemporary Italians over whom Rossini towered. Bellini is said to have remarked after he saw his first opera by Rossini, Semiramide, that there was no purpose in anyone else trying to do anything. However, his adoration of Donizetti in particular led to his career blossoming and he was soon in demand as a composer who knew how to produce in the style of bel canto to please his audiences. But ‘bel canto’ goes nowhere near describing Bellini’s insight and rare talent to ally narrative and psychology within  ostensibly melodic parameters. Verdi was in awe of Bellini’s melodic talent certainly, apparently saying that ‘there are extremely long melodies as no-one else had ever made before’. He was also described romantically as the Swan of Catania as his reputation grew. It was in Germany where this deeper  dramatic talent was truly recognised, and as Tim Ashley writes ‘Wagner, who rarely liked anyone but himself, was spellbound by Bellini’s almost uncanny ability to match music with text and psychology. Liszt and Chopin professed themselves fans’. Wagner intervened in typically magisterial terms in an esoteric but heated debate in Germany with a full justification of Bellini’s seemingly innocent works attesting that behind the purity of simple melody lay deep dramatic artistry.

I Capuleti e i Montecchi was composed in about 5 or 6 weeks, very hurriedly to commission although you would never know it, based not on Shakespeare but on other old Italian sources. Capuleti is Bellini’s first opera in his prime written before he was 30 years old, and within the five years following he composed SonnambulaI Puritani and Norma which remain as three of the most complete and inspired operas of the time. It was the first Bellini opera I conducted and it was in Catania’s aptly named Teatro Bellini with the well-known soprano Mariella Devia as Giulietta. A beautiful statue of the great man stands outside the theatre, such is the value placed on his legacy. Alas, the Bellini cocktail has nothing to do with him at all, but Pasta alla Norma, a Catanese dish based on aubergines certainly does, named by a Director who claimed that the aubergine dish was as sublime as Bellini’s opera, Norma. Heinrich Heine held Bellini in very high regard, and although he described him as ‘a sigh in dancing pumps’ is quoted as telling Bellini he was ‘a genius and all geniuses die a premature death, like Raphael and Mozart’, which apparently he took to heart. He did in fact die at the early age of 34, only two years short of Mozart’s life span, and we can only speculate in sadness and admiration about what great works might have followed if he had lived longer.

Stephen Barlow Artistic Director

So, as you can see the Festival has much to offer to honour ‘England’s national poet’ and ‘Bard of Avon’. Public booking opened on 29 March so be sure to get in early to avoid disappointment!

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