Tom Sutcliffe looks back at this year’s Kings Lynn Arts Festival and Buxton Festival, including performances of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia and Messager’s Veronique

I made my debut in the pulpit preaching at the service to mark the opening of the Kings Lynn Arts Festival on 12 July. This was Mattins with knobs on, including Stanford’s ‘Beati quorum via’ and George Herberts ‘Love bade me welcome’ on top of OT and NT lessons. It was attended by the Mayor, the Deputy Mayor, their wives, and four sergeants at mace wearing tricorn hats. The nave of St Margaret’s, a cathedral-scale former Benedictine abbey, was packed. The local Roman Catholic parish priest led the final prayers.

Our Church of England is home to many festivals of its own. Church buildings are often the most worthwhile part of a town’s identity, frequently used for concerts and talks. As I said, keeping in mind George Herbert on the doctrine of Grace, ‘The theatre and the music that we love and that nourish us are a different and yet an authentic part of that meal of creation in which we all share in our own different ways. A festival is a feast of the good things and the beautiful things that have been created. It is a feast of the ideas embodied in those wonderful imaginative works of art – which express our being better than we individually know how. All you need to take pleasure from a festival is the appetite for its kind of nourishment, and the fascination of wanting to learn from and to love that distillation of memory which is the heart of the creative arts, and the essence of all culture.’ If the Church is part of our spiritual NHS, so too are, or should be, the live performing arts.

Kings Lynn’s festival is mostly chamber music and famous writers nowadays, though originally in the Fifties it was more ambitious and better funded. Next year being its sixtieth, it ought to make a splash.

Resurrected opera house

Buxton’s festival, which started in 1979, is also heavily into events with writers and the famous, in addition to orchestral concerts, chamber music and recitals. It boasted two Festival Masses with Haydn settings at St John’s Church on its first two Sundays (no entry charge), and a choral Mattins with Purcell. Buxton benefits from being in the heady Peak District, with its transfiguring views, and adjacent Derbyshire dales.

A health resort since the nineteenth century, with waters you used to be able to take as a cure along with lots of energizing walks before they were sold for bottling, it is on a grander scale than Kings Lynn, including this year six opera productions. Three were professional promotions of its own, three visiting shows.

The programme proudly proclaims its income and expenditure percentages: local subsidy is 2%; the Arts Council gives 10%; it spends 57% on performers; 17% on admin. But its initial raison d’etre was to resurrect the Buxton Opera House, Frank Matcham’s sublime 1903 jewel of a theatre, which was a cinema for decades, and after 1981 left to become semi-derelict. These days the gold leaf everywhere is positively dazzling.

High standards

Buxton Opera House is small for opera. Really it is a receiving house, good for spoken theatre. Lilian Baylis ran a stage festival there at the end of the summer. In 1938 Alec Guinness brought his modern dress Hamlet, directed by Tyrone Guthrie. Musical standards these days are very high. As well as enjoying the Australian String Quartet play Peter Sculthorpe’s marvellous Eighth Quartet at the Palace Hotel up the hill, in a room where I also heard the Welsh National Opera’s bass-baritone David Soar singing Schubert, Mussorgsky and Finzi robustly, I saw Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia conducted by Buxton’s artistic director Andrew Greenwood, and Veronique, a sweet hormone-ridden French operetta by Andre Messager.

Stephen Medcalf s staging of the Donizetti, based on Victor Hugo’s shocker about the Pope’s poisoning poisonous daughter, was neatly managed but not atmospheric enough. If only Mary Plazas’s Lucrezia had caught fire the way her Nedda did in ENO’s astonishing Pagliacci. The scenes with her son and almost lover Gennaro (a warm American tenor, John Bellemer) were unconvincing. The best voice was Bulgarian mezzo Miroslava Yordanova in the trousers role of Orsini. The final round-table poisoning had a lurid fascination.

Wyn Davies conducted Messager’s frolic Veronique with a lovely idiomatic spring in his step, while director Giles Havergal gave it a smart Edwardian monochrome look (designed by Leslie Travers) that would have been familiar to anybody who knew the Glasgow Citizens Theatre during Havergal’s lengthy tenure there. Victoria Joyce in the title role worked her (very necessary) charm far more effectively than the handsome Mark Stone as her reluctant spouse and unknowing lover Florestan, a hopelessly spendthrift self-centred aristo, who was too stiff and pedestrian. Donald Maxwell as the philandering florist Coquenard stole all his scenes and made every word tell. Everybody in the cast seemed to catch the conspiratorial naughty tone of the piece in their own way. The music was a souffle. Euphoric catchy stuff.

Tom Sutcliffe’s website and blog about opera and theatre is at