Buxton Festival 2019 Review: Georgiana

A 21st Libretto With 18th Century Music Is A Winning Combination

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Genevieve Girling)

Chatsworth House, situated in England’s Peak District, and only a short drive from the spa town of Buxton, is one of Britain’s best known stately homes, renowned for its works of art, delightful architecture and landscaped gardens. It is the ancestral home of the Cavendish family, the seat of the Dukes of Devonshire. The family has had a long association with the town of Buxton, and is responsible for many of its grand 18th century buildings, which give the town its distinctive character.

It seems particularly appropriate, therefore, that this year’s Buxton Festival should be premiering an opera, or more specifically a pasticcio, about one of the family’s most celebrated members: the fun-loving, flamboyant and highly controversial, Lady Georgiana.

A Perfect Story

Hers was a life tailor-made for the subject of an opera, or two! Georgiana was, for the want of a better word, a free spirit, a woman who did not respect the conventional mores of the day, and who embraced the teachings of Rousseau and free love. She wrote novels and poetry, took an interest in science, and was a leader of female fashion. Newspapers reported extensively on her appearances, and her charismatic personality made her widely popular, with royalty down to lowly garbage collectors. She had little respect for money, although she certainly loved it, running up huge gambling debts, for her husband to pay; she owed over £3m when she died of an infected liver, at the age of only 48.

She involved herself in a round of parties and high profile love affairs, including with Lord Grey, the future Prime Minister, to whom she became pregnant, and had to scuttle off to France to give birth in secret to avoid a scandal. She interested herself in political activities, supporting the radical Whig faction in Parliament, for whom she campaigned, selling kisses for votes. She had a very close friendship with Lady Bess Foster, which was rumored to be a lesbian relationship. Georgiana had Lady Bess move in with her, who then started an affair with the Duke, in a cosy ménage-à-trois. Following Georgiana’s death, Lady Bess was to marry the Duke, and take her place as the new Duchess of Devonshire.

Mark Tatlow (musical arranger) was commissioned to create a pasticcio about her life, which is a form of lyric theatre, comprising arias, duets and ensembles brought together from different works, either by the same or different composers, to create a new work distinct from the works from which they were drawn. It was a common practice in the 18th century, attracting composers of such standing as Handel and Telemann. The composers’ approach could take many forms, with few restrictions, and they may choose to re-orchestrate, transpose or re-compose the borrowed music. For “Georgiana,” Tatlow decided to use music composed during her lifetime, and with which she may well have been familiar, incorporating works by Mozart, Paisiello, Martin y Soler, the English composers, Thomas Linley and Stephen Storace, and even a work attributed to Georgina herself.

A Simple Structure

The opera had a simple structure, musical numbers with spoken dialogue, for which Michael Williams rewrote the lyrics to the numbers and Janet Plater supplied the dialogue. The result was a fast-moving, hugely entertaining and brilliantly crafted piece of theatre.

Tatlow wisely chose pieces that would not overshadow the drama; of the eight Mozart numbers the most well-known came from his rarely performed opera, “La finta giardiniera.” Williams’ lyrics were attentive to the musical rhythm, and combined reflective moments with a forward momentum which gave the work an engaging pace.

Plater’s dialogue added detail and clarity to the narrative. It was often witty, but at times serious, in which the emotional tensions that underpinned much of the drama were fleshed out. It would have been correct to have judged the work as well-balanced, with its dialogue, lyrics, music and narrative working in uninhibited harmony, had it not been for the unprintable crude obscenities shouted out in the scene in which Georgina wooed the common people, promising kisses for votes. It was horribly stereotypical, and out of character with the rest of work. The fact that it was delivered as spoken dialogue, and that it was supposed to be funny was a severe misjudgment, nobody laughed!

A Well-Oiled Staging

The director, Matthew Richardson, and designer, John Morrell, produced a compelling, energetic and well-oiled staging. The set was simple, consisting of little more than white walls and doors, but Richardson was successful in using the space to its maximum effect. Costumes were colorful, traditional late 18th century designs, and in the case of Georgiana very elaborate.

All the characters were strongly defined, and movement was always carefully coordinated for maximum comedy effect. Each scene was arranged and defined with skill, and the individual stories clearly brought alive, whilst maintaining the overall structure of the narrative.

Richardson was masterful in exploiting the comedic potential within piece, and never let an opportunity pass. The birth of Georgina’s and Bess’s babies, to the same father, was brilliantly dealt with, and had the audience laughing out loud throughout the scene. It was all so cleverly done that the comedy never trespassed upon the tragic aspects of the work. Even the scene in which Georgina went political campaigning would have worked if it had it not been for the ill-fitting language.

All the main characters were real people, who Georgiana would have known and had dealings with, with exception of the unnamed blackmailer.

Bringing The Duchess To Life

In the title role was the soprano, Samantha Clarke, who produced a sparkling performance, in what was an energetic, lively performance, one that captured Georgiana’s magnetic personality.

Making a grand entrance, she quickly established herself as the center of attention. Singing a polacca by Martin y Soler, she greets her adoring friends, bemoans her boring husband and praises the joys of gambling, while quietly assuring the blackmailer that he will be paid. Clarke’s bright voice, with its silvery tone and strong upper register delighted, and combined with her embellishments to capture the superficiality of the scene.

Yet, her portrayal was not one dimensional, it was not all froth and glitz. Georgiana suffers at the hands of her hypocritical philandering husband, she is forced to give up her illegitimate child, is chased by a blackmailer for money, and eventually realizes she is dying. Clarke’s versatile acting and singing brought out her pain and fears.

In the final duet, with music by Paisiello, she gives voice to her fears, pleading with Bess not to leave her, and encouraging her to marry the Duke when she has gone. Her singing carefully molded to express her entangled emotions in a dramatically convincing scene.

Best Friend & Lover

The substantial role of Goregiana’s best friend, lover and eventual successor, Lady Bess Foster, is not an easy part. Georgiana’s story is introduced by Bess, she also brings it to a conclusion, and she plays a pivotal role in the lives of both Georgiana and her husband, the Duke. Yet it is absolutely essential that she does not upstage Georgiana, she must remain in her shadow.

It fell to the soprano, Susanna Fairbairn, to navigate this role, and a fine job she did too. While putting in a strong performance in her own right, and establishing Bess as a distinct personality, it was always clear that the spotlight was shining on Georgina. Fairbairn sang well, her voice possesses a pleasing timbre, with an attractive and appealing coloratura, and her phrasing was always carefully crafted to bring depth to her character.

Benjamin Hulett was cast as the Duke of Devonshire, the self-righteous, husband of Georgiana and then Lady Bess. In his opening aria, “I deserve to be respected,” he gave clear indication as to his character, as he raged against Georgiana’s behaviour; his voice laced through with anger and frustration, he demanded she keep to her wedding vows, and provide him with a male heir!

In his second aria, “You bring me pain and never ending scandal” he again rages at Georgiana, this time because she is pregnant to Lord Grey; in another forceful presentation Hulett vented his anger, in a powerful, forceful outburst in which the clarity and versatility of the voice impressed. His indignation was unaffected by the fact that he had his own illegitimate children.

The Rest of the World

Georgina’s mother, Lady Spencer, was played by mezzo-soprano, Olivia Ray, who made the most of what was not a large part. In her aria, “I will not stand for this naivety,” in which she lets Georgiana know her thoughts about the devious Lady Bess, she showed off her versatile voice. She possesses a colorful palette, which she used to tint her lines with emotional emphases, and her passaggio was seamless, allowing her to move rapidly up and down the scale with ease, in what was an engaging rendition.

The politician, Charles James Fox, and playwright, Richard Brindley Sheridan, were played by tenor, Aled Hall, and baritone, Geoffrey Dalton. They were cast as a comedy duo, who appeared at regular intervals in order to catch up with the latest gossip, and to provide a commentary on the latest rumors enveloping the Cavendishes, in what were hilarious cameos. Not only did this bring added depth to the drama, but it also brought a different perspective, distinct from that of Georgiana, the Duke and Bess.

The two lesser roles were undertaken by the mezzo-soprano, Katherine Aitken, as Lord Grey and the bass, Rhys Alun Thomas, as the Blackmailer. Both performed their roles successfully, engaged convincingly with their characters, and sang well.

Mark Tatlow, who arranged the score, was also tasked with conducting the Northern Chamber Orchestra, in what proved to be a well-balanced, vibrant and engaging performance. The Buxton Festival Chorus was in good shape, singing with brio and acting out their roles with enthusiasm, which was certainly the cause of much laughter during the scene with the Duke’s babies.

To be honest, “Georgiana” came as bit of a surprise. Thanks to the talents of Tatlow, Williams and Plater this was a well-integrated work, in which the disparate musical styles complemented each other nicely, and in which the imaginatively constructed narrative, containing a taught plot and well-developed characters, fully engaged and entertained the audience. It was a perfect example of how we can use the forms of the past to create a modern work, which reflects the sensibilities of a modern audience. All in all, it was a great piece of theatre.


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