It’s the 39th Buxton International Festival, and they like to get off to a flying start with a gala concert. With Lesley Garrett as both hostess and performer, plus the Northern Chamber Orchestra (led by Nicholas Ward and conducted by Nicholas Kok) in the pit, it could hardly fail to do that.
The music was a mix of favourite tunes from opera and operetta with generous scoops from musicals – ending with the fabulous Ice Cream Sextet from Kurt Weill’s Street Scene (this time licked by 11 soloists) which was right on the button for a sweltering evening in the Peak District … normally a rare enough experience.
The NCO sounded great as a Broadway pit orchestra from the off with Gershwin’s Strike up the Band overture, and morphed into a precise and stylish opera ensemble for the overture to Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri. One of the festival’s greatest assets in recent years has been this orchestra’s superb contribution to its music-making, and long may it continue.
But what I enjoyed most in the evening’s programme was the varied array of talent on offer from 11 soloist members of the Opera North Chorus. The company prides itself nowadays on engaging top performers in its chorus who can bring something distinctive to any role they’re asked to undertake, and boy did they shine in this programme of lively vignettes.
I’m glad to say I first heard Amy Freston sing when she was still training to be a dancer – and today she brings both skills to the stage brilliantly. ‘I could have danced all night’ (My Fair Lady) was made for her, and she led the troupe in many ways in ensemble numbers such as ‘That’s him’ (One Touch of Venus) and the Infernal Galop from Orpheus in the Underworld.
Nicholas Watts proved himself a charmer – and an accomplished siffleur – in ‘Johnny’s Song’ (Johnny Johnson), and Alexander Banfield was excellent in ‘Lonely House’ (Street Scene), as was Dean Robinson with ‘Some enchanted evening’ (South Pacific), but the real showstopper from the men came in ‘Wouldn’t you like to be on Broadway’ (Street Scene).
But for sheer stage presence and delivery, with virtuoso singing, precise in rhythm and pitch, as well as acting, the stand-out was Lorna James – another singer who I’m glad to say I saw early in her musical journey, at the RNCM, and rated very highly – with Bernstein’s ‘Glitter and be gay’ (Candide).
The singers worked tirelessly, even contributing rarely heard vocal lines to the orchestra (and Nicholas Ward’s) Méditation from Massenet’s Thaïs, and Opera North’s Martin Pickard was a supreme piano accompanist.
Changing the atmosphere near the close with the sweetly soulful ‘My Ship’ (Lady in the dark), sung by Kathryn Walker, was a lovely stroke, and Lesley Garrett followed that with ‘If love were all’ (Bitter Sweet), Noel Coward’s sentimental number about the ‘talent to amuse’. Everyone on stage certainly had that, and the ability to inspire, too, with a final ‘You’ll never walk alone’ (Carousel).
BELOW: Lesley Garrett, and Nicholas Ward leading the Northern Chamber Orchestra