Buxton International Festival – Donizetti’s Viva la Diva – with George Humphreys & Jenny Strafford; directed by Stephen Medcalf; conducted by Iwan Davies

Viva la Diva – Opera in three Acts [sic] to a libretto by the composer after Antonio Simone Sografi’s plays Le convenienze teatrali and Le inconvenienze teatrali [sung to an adaptation by Kit Hesketh-Harvey; sung in English and Italian, with English surtitles]

Lord Connor Chetham (Impresario) – Richard Burkhard
Dr Huw Watt (Conductor) – Iwan Davies
Brathwaite S. Merchant (Director) – Elliot Carlton Hines
Lady Agatha Wigan (RNCM student) – George Humphreys
Alexa Wigan – Olivia Carrell
L’assoluta ‘German’ (Prima Donna as Ersilia) – Jenny Stafford
Haaken Czestikov – Raimundas Juzuitis
Vanamaka Zonnendanz (Czech mezzo) – Lauren Young
Nicola Strapagato (Italian tenor, as Romolo) – Joseph Doody
Ray (DMS) – Quentin Hayes
Syri Satterthwaite (ASM) – Georgina Stalbow
ASM and Prompter – William Searles
Répétiteur – Katie Wong

Northern Chamber Orchestra
Iwan Davies

Stephen Medcalf – Director
Yannis Thavoris – Designer
Kate Watson – Choreography
Jake Wiltshire – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 10 July, 2022
Venue: Buxton Opera House, Derbyshire, England

‘Viva la Diva’ is, in this form, Kit Hesketh-Harvey’s winning version of Donizetti’s Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali (1831) which satirises both the conventions of a provincial operatic company in attempting to mount an opera seria, and the pretensions and foibles of the assembled singers and theatre crew. It expands a production for the Salzburger Landestheater in 2020, astutely adapting it – with an English text, and without significantly wide divergences in the scenario – to bring under archly comic scrutiny the culture of theatre production in England generally, and local conditions in Buxton and the Midlands more specifically. The idea of Donizetti’s original work is already familiar from Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor, and taken up again by Strauss in Ariadne auf Naxos, but Donizetti’s opera is a more sustained project than the former, whilst using an essentially Rossinian musical language. 

The light-hearted milieu of a summer festival makes the delightful – and still pertinent – work an appropriate work to cast a self-deprecating eye upon the resources of any such a confidently established institution as the Buxton International Festival, especially as the rehearsals by the ‘High Peak Festival Opera’ for the opera-within-the-opera give cause to refer to another production this year, Rossini’s La donna del Lago. Moreover, it will enchant regular opera-goers and newcomers alike in sending up the formulae of serious Italian opera (by way of the Classical Roman drama that is supposed to be mounted, Romolo ed Ersilia) as well as certain elements of the tradition of opera buffa (through Donizetti’s framing device of the work’s outward narrative, which has the flawed characters working towards (or not) a production of that drama, by parodying or exploiting the components of the operatic genre, in addition to often being motivated by money or material gain). 

Stephen Medcalf and Yannis Thavoris’s conception of the work further draws us in by adding a prologue with some of the characters auditioning for the roles they hope to assume in the following opera, before us in front of the curtain. The rehearsal space that opens up in the first half (apparently based on one which Buxton has used in Vauxhall in the past) recedes in perspective from the stage, also to make us feel part of the action. Spoken dialogue wittily alludes to various theatrical in-jokes and contemporary affairs between the sung numbers, whilst the transliteration of the words for the latter deliberately casts them as a clichéd perversion of the typical sentiments of an opera seria libretto (in that respect Donizetti may have had in mind an earlier serenata by Hasse, another example of which also features at Buxton this year). 

The cast evidently enjoy realising the quirky dispositions of the performers, not least George Humphreys as the hilariously oversized Lady Wigan in drag, as the ironically named Diva of the title (opera being no stranger to the idea of gender fluidity, as this presentation of the character is true the original, drawing on a convention which goes back to Monteverdi; and Humphreys’s tall stature within female array, incidentally, also happens to invoke that other peculiarity of Italian opera, the castrato, who were said to grow beyond normal height on account of their biological mutilation).  He sings and acts convincingly as this adapted version of the English pantomime dame – with all the incongruities which result from a man acting a woman’s role – and also playing up to certain social snobberies and reactionary opinions identifiable today. 

Jenny Stafford achieves the razor-sharp florid singing of the standard prima donna (satirised as the ‘coloratura that pulverises crystal / coloratura that can be heard in Bristol’) whilst maintaining a forceful, indomitable demeanour as the German ‘L’assoluta’ brought in to play the part. For them, as for Quentin Hayes’s Ray (the deputy stage manager who falls into that position after a less than successful audition) it is no mean achievement, as professional musical actors, to perform with deliberate imperfection or knowing detachment from their assumed roles.

James Doody is no less an idiomatic Italianate tenor as Romolo in the rehearsals for the opera before he flounces out for good because he refuses to work alongside Lady Wigan when she has to fill the role of the mezzo-soprano, vacated by Lauren Young’s otherwise well-behaved Vanamaka Zonnendanz. Doody’s part as the hero in Romolo ed Ersilia is taken up by the prima donna’s lover and over-protective minder Haaken Czestikov, sung by Raimundas Juzuitis with a suitably husky eloquence, though it is a pity that his Lithuanian diction (otherwise aptly cast for this production’s intentions for this role) is not always clear in the spoken dialogue. 

Elliot Carlton Hines is the earnest Director, BS Merchant, within the opera, but as a supposed womaniser and sex pest his proclivities are not acted out at all, but only slightly implied in the text – presumably it was deemed in bad taste to play on that idea in light of recent, real-life cases of producers, actors, and others, abusing their positions of control over others to sexually exploitative ends. Nonetheless his artistic plans are comically thwarted as a result of insufficient funds and his colleagues’ interference, such that the second half of the work brings on, for the dress rehearsal of the opera, an incongruous assortment of items, allegedly from a production of the Coronation of Poppea ‘from Wexford’ (a work never, in fact, mounted there – though the giant head of Zeus recalls ironically the statuesque use of Classical sculpture in other productions in any case). Despite her browbeaten appearance as Alexa, being advanced by her mother for a more prominent role in the opera, Olivia Carrell flourishes vocally to depict what a soprano singer, unaffected by overweening ambition, might be.  The production is overseen by Richard Burkhard’s heart bluster as the impresario, Lord Connor, until his shady financial dealings are uncovered, leaving the company without the means to continue their project. 

The Northern Chamber Orchestra players adeptly navigate the abrupt changes of gear between the passages of serious music they have to execute in the numbers for Romolo ed Ersilia, and the less conventional roles they have to discharge around that, such as when they call a strike (except the violas “who haven’t noticed”). 

Conductor Iwan Davies skilfully keeps his finger on the pulse of the music and the drama by having a part to play within the drama himself by leading the orchestra as the ensemble within the staged rehearsals.

In essence, this is truly what opera can be all about – taking seriously the fun, and laughing off the frustrations of the world of the theatre.

Further performances to July 23

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