Nothing sheepish about this dressing up box Il re pastore, Buxton International Festival


When our singers started jigging along at the end of Il re pastore, having told us the Greek army is camped nearby and the shepherd king was tending his sheep, I half expected the Brecon Beacons National Park police to rush in and arrest them all.

The connection between young Mozart’s take on Alexander the Great’s imposition of a regime in territories he conquered across what is now the Near East and Welsh sheep farming and armies rampaging across the Brecon Beacons? Who knows. Well, apart from Cardiffian director Jack Furness presumably.

Well, to keep things simple (and presumably cost effective) we have no set for the production, only the five singers in dressing up box versions of 18th century garb (think Marie Antoinette and her play farm), and six video panels forming a back wall. On these are shown idyllic scenes of the popular Four Falls Waterfalls trail that include Sgwd Clun-Gwyn, Sgwd Isaf Clun-Gwyn, Sgwd y Pannwr and Sgwd yr Eira on the Afon Mellte and Afon Hepste. Then we move higher into the Brecon Beacon uplands before racing across to what looks like the Pembrokeshire coast. We apparently have some Derbyshire vistas (phew).

The point of this production seems to be getting back to the heart of the opera which is rejecting glory and kingship for the simplicity and purity of love and the natural world, the shepherd and shepherdess in this rural idyll. The re pastore, shepherd king, tends his flock on these perfect landscapes, while Alexander’s armies are (invisibly) camped somewhere near.

Olivia Carroll

Clearly Sidon had a less anti sheep farmer attitude than the Brecon Beacons National Park Authority which is keen to get rid of those pesky environment-destroying wooly creatures off the Beacons, making our poor old shepherd king sign on at the Brecon Jobcentre.

Joseph Doody

Why does that even that matter? It was clear from eavesdropped conversations that what the Derbyshire audience members were talking about in the interval and as they left the gorgeous Buxton Opera House was the videos, what and where they were filmed etc., rather than the wonderful youthful singing from those five beautifully voiced singers, and Adrian Kelly’s conducting of the Northern Chamber Orchestra of Mozart’s formal yet engaging score.

Frankly, it could have been a concert performance and with just the Hannah Wolfe costumes and Jack Furness videos it was pretty much that, a semi-staged vehicle for the singers each to sing their arias, revelling and excelling in florid displays of their musicianship, bringing individual emotion and charm to the technically demanding “stand and sing” delights, interspersed with some rather by the way recitative.

Katie Coventry

The delight of Buxton (well, one of the many) is sometimes hearing these young singers in different roles in the same week and in the case of the excellent Ellie Neate two nights running. Here she sings Elise, the love interest of the shepherd king, and we know from the previous night’s La Sonnambula, where she dropped two es (think about it) and added an s to sing an effervescent Lisa. Her Aminta, the re pastore, Katie Coventry is full of youthful vigour, innocence, and longing in the role. I would have dropped the false beard make-up but then maybe that was part of the dressing-up box approach to the show?

Joseph Doody and George Curnow

The other would-be lovers Agenore and Tamiri are very strongly sung by George Curnow and Olivia Carroll, and she looked particularly thrilled in the denouement to be given the wow costume of the night.

The daftest characterisation was the lovable Alessandro (Alexander) from Joseph Doody as he keeps trying to do the best thing, but it is not until Elise breaks with all the courtly convention to tell him how it is that he sees where he has gone wrong and in a twinkle of an eye (or majestically sung aria) sets all right. He looked very dashing in his military costume particularly when he appeared with his splendid big hat.

Yes, musically this is a stunner of a performance and if it appears again somewhere which is deserves to, I will just focus on the performers and music. And, yes, I do know it is Bannau Brycheinoig in Welsh, which is actually particularly remarkably easy to say.

By the way, the hidden Macedonian army is probably training up at Sennybridge with the British Army at their base in the Beacons. What intriguing sub plots we have from the Cardiffian director.

Images: Genevieve Girling

La Sonnabula review:

The Festival runs until July 23.

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