Small picture of Donizetti




Donizetti's Maria Padilla

Buxton Festival, 2003


Pictures from the 2003 Buxton Festival production, provided by the Festival together with a review from a Society member, Alex Liddell. The press reviews were a little mixed (Guardian(July 11), Daily Telegraph (July 11), Times (July 8)) but it was generally welcomed as a worthwhile and interesting undertaking.   


Review by Alex Liddell  (20 July, 2003)

Newsletter 90, November 2003

Productions of Donizetti’s lesser-known works are regrettably thin on the ground, so it was a cause for rejoicing amongst Donizetti aficionados that Buxton chose Maria Padilla as one of its 2003 Festival offerings, giving the piece its first stage production in Britain. The prospect for me, however, was tempered by consistent disappointment with the musical standards of Buxton productions over the last decade (despite the fact that other interesting Donizetti operas like Torquato Tasso, Maria Stuarda and Il Campanello have featured amongst its off-beat offerings).

In the event Buxton turned in a respectable but unexciting account of an opera which, although it has some noteworthy features (like the unusual subtlety of its orchestration), might well be described using the same epithets. The plot was originally to have culminated in Maria’s suicide after the Spanish king, of whom she has been the unofficial wife for many years, renounces her in favour of an official French spouse. Much has been made of the fact that this dénouement was in the event replaced by a happy ending, doubtless a consequence of the official censor's not permitting an on-stage suicide, thereby bucking the trend of the rest of the plot. However, this volte face is no more dramatically incredible than in many other more famous operas – as in La Clemenza di Tito, for example.

 Set in a simple but handsome, galleried square, the sombre hues of which offset the bright colour accents of the otherwise appropriately dark costumes of the Spanish court – both designed by Lez Brotherston – the action was directed in a clear but not strikingly imaginative way by Adrian Lang. Indeed, the culminating dramatic moment, when Maria snatches the crown from Pedro (the king) as he goes to crown his official queen, was a numbingly anticlimactic, meek and apologetic gesture. Brenda Harris (an American soprano making her British debut) had all the notes for Maria, but seemed to lack the ability to shade them with varied colour or dramatic import, and Victoria Simmons (her sister, Ines) appeared to be more at ease with Donizetti’s vocal idiom. Both, however, scored a triumph with their lilting Act II duet ‘A figlia incauta’ – a hit with the La Scala first night and later audiences, and also at the performance I went to.

 Amongst the men, Justin Lavender seemed to be having an off-night as Ruîz, Maria’s father, who is assigned that rarest of phenomena – a tenor mad scene. Apart from problems of pitch, he sang with a quavering voice that sounded strained and, however appropriate to his aged and unhinged character, unrewarding to listen to. George Mosley as Pedro gave, perhaps, the most vocally accomplished performance, deploying a stylish baritone well equal to the demands of the music.

 The young, sixteen-strong, Festival Chorus acquitted itself well, and managed to make the stage look adequately populated when a bit of spectacle was required. The Northern Chamber Orchestra, under Andrew Greenwood’s con brio direction, gave a worthy account of the score, although tutti sounded a little boxed-in by the depth of the largely understage pit. This certainly made for audibility of the English translation of the text by Donald Pippin, which kept the largely local audience in touch with the action. Although this doubtless pleased the opera-in-English brigade, I thought its Gilbertian style made for risible absurdity, particularly at moments of high drama. For that reason, the obscurity (for most) of an Italian language performance might arguably have been preferable. But not only for that reason. In my opinion, performances in English of Italian opera raise another issue seldom given proper prominence in discussions of the merits of such performances. English and Italian vowel sounds differ, but the vowel sounds, as much as the actual rhythmic stress of Italian, are part and parcel of the composer’s over-all musical conception. Change them and you change the character and impact of the music itself. This fundamental point remains, however successful the translator may be at fitting credible English to the music, without the English being strained or the actual musical line being altered, although it often is. While the trade-off in communicative immediacy may be worthwhile in occasional cases (particularly in comedies), performances of Italian operas in English usually lack the spring and fluency they have when sung in their original language.

 So, for me, the Buxton Maria Padilla was never going to be an authentic-sounding performance from a vocal point of view. Nor was it. English seemed to have the effect of emasculating, and thereby lessening, its over-all dramatic impact. Still, given its rarity, one has to applaud Buxton Festival for having given us the opportunity of hearing it at all.  


Don Luiz & Ines

Act 1 - Andrew Mackenzie-Wickes as Don Luiz and Victoria Simmonds as Ines


Maria & Don Pedro

 Act 1 - Brenda Harris as Maria and George Mosley as Don Pedro


Don Ruiz

Act 2 - Justin Lavender as Don Ruiz di Padilla



Act 2 - Brenda Harris as Maria




Page initially published in  2003