“Intermezzi” are short, brief entertainments between the acts of a play or an opera. A weekend trip to Buxton (pronounced by the locals as “Books-tun”) in Derbyshire provided a charming interlude to London life. From the first moment of arrival (fast train from London, then a rather slower two-carriage diesel to the local station) Buxton pleased. It is a delightful small town, built of homogenous, presumably locally-quarried, grey stone, set in the foothills of the Peak District. It has many wonderfully preserved buildings from its hey-day as a spa town: Buxton is famous for its waters. There are fine faded old hotels, a huge dome, a pavilion, lovely gardens, England’s oldest market square, and its oldest hotel (Mary Queen of Scots staying the building), a crescent of townhouses and a yet-to-be-restored pump room - just like a mini-Bath.
|Buxton's Crescent: under restoration, to re-open 2014|
And there is, moreover, an Opera House. It seems that the restoration of this opera house and its rescue from use as a cinema was the catalyst for the establishment of the Buxton Festival, which has now evolved into a regular summer feats of music, art and literature.
|The Palace Hotel, Buxton|
Upon our arrival at The Palace Hotel, a fine old faded lady, the reception hall was filed with a capella song as a visiting choir warmed up. We checked in to the strains of “It’s a Wonderful World”, then set out to find what Buxton had to offer. It soon dawned on us that we had happened upon a real gem of a town. We were spilt for choice of atmospheric old pubs at which to lunch, and -- uh, oh! -- we found the place filled with bookshops. Buxton is, you see, also a university town, a campus of the University of Derbyshire. Apart from the permanent bookshops, Buxton was merrily hosting a a literary festival, so there were extra bookstalls sprinkled about. There was also, under the dome of the pavilion, a serious antiquarian book fair on display. Did we buy books? Of course we did. My highlight find was as copy of a small chapbook written by Virginia Woolf, and published in 1934 by Hogarth Press - which was run by Leonard and Virginia Woolf in their basement in Tavistock Square. (Without getting too excited, I remind you that some of my philosophy classes at Birkbeck were held in the very same building on Tavistock Square...but I digress...). In 1934 the small book sold for “one shilling & sixpence net”. In Buxton in 2012 it cost me £20. A bargain!
|Buxton Opera House|
But we weren’t in Buxton just to enjoy its ambience and its book-buying possibilities. We were here for another “Intermezzo” - the rarely-performed opera by Richard Strauss. The lovely little Buxton Opera House was hosting the opening night, under the baton of conductor Stephen Barlow (who is , interestingly, married to Joanna Lumley, though we didn’t spot her in the stalls). The maestro and the director, Stephen Unwin, provided half an hour of ‘opera talk’ before the performance, which was illuminating.
The opera, you see, is autobiographical, and domestic. It’s the story of a squabble between the composer and his wife, and it fairly closely factual. The action takes place in Grundlsee and Vienna, Austria in 1924. Christine, the wife in the piece, is a wild and argumentative harridan, and it is said that Strauss‘ real-life wife Paulina was none too happy when she saw it. Bust as Michael Kennedy writing in the program tells us:
They were an oddly-matched couple. He was phlegmatic, easy-going, good-natured. She was volcanic, outspoken (she would sometimes decry he husband’s music in public) and she became a domestic matriarch, keeping their home immaculately clean and well-run. They adored each other and their marriage lasted for 55 years until Strauss’s death in 1949. When he died, she went to pieces and survived only another eight months. from their marriage until she retired in 1906 [she was a soprano], they gave many recitals together and he regarded her as the best interpreter of his songs. Elements of Pauline can be found in most Strauss operas. She fascinated him totally.
Apart from its unusual domestic and autobiographical subject-matter, the opera is also musically unusual. It is very much a continuous ‘conversation’, with no interspersed arias or choruses - though it does end with a wonderful duet between ‘Christine’ and ‘Robert’. Typically of Strauss, the final music is so resplendent that you are inevitably left wanting it to go on and on...
|Summer Festival, Buxton|
The soprano role. Christine, is huge - she is on stage for 10 of the 13 cinematographic scenes through which the opera speed. I Buxton, the sets were naturalist and beautifully rendered, minimalist on furniture but rich with props and details. Christine was sung by Janis Kelly, and marvellously. Her husband was sung by Stephen Gadd, equally well. In fact, al the voices were excellent indeed. The opera was sung in an English translation (by Andrew Porter), which worked fine (German to English translations never seem to suffer too much).
Strauss subtitled “Intermezzo” - “A bourgeois comedy in two acts”. The director Stephen Unwin told us that he was a theatre director whose style very much favoured a naturalistic approach. he even quoted a remark of Zola as an inspiration:
“There is more poetry in a little apartment of a bourgeois than in all the empty worm-eaten palaces of history.”
Strauss defended his decision to write a more or less plotless opera - nothing really happens, it is like the ‘Seinfeld’ of opera - and said that his “attractive and consistent character portrait” was “more interesting than any so-called plot”.
Unwin writes in the program:
...this rejection of conventional opera was more than merely formal, it was a self-conscious embrace of modernism’s contention that all lives, of every type, are worthy of interest and capable of being rendered into art...
Bravo, Herr Strauss. And bravissimo Buxton.
|Buxton locator: in the Peak District|
Map from: http://www.swainsleyfarm.co.uk/getting-here.htm