Brescianello’s Tisbe at the Buxton Festival

“A candidate for the finest Baroque opera ever” proudly proclaims the programme note for Giuseppe Antonio Brescianello’s Tisbe, performed at this year’s Buxton Festival. Well, it may certainly be worth the odd revival, but it is no masterpiece. The plot, largely familiar from Shakespeare’s parody in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, though augmented by two characters to provide rivalry in the love intrigue, is rudimentary and the libretto by Martello platitudinous. Brescianello’s score certainly contains some original and inspiring passages, for example, when a solo aria is accompanied only by a pair of recorders, or when the vocal line encompasses some unusual intervals. But there is also a rather wearying sameness to the music: not merely the unvarying da capo format, but also the thematic material, whether scurrying rhythmic repeated notes to convey excitement or languorous phrases for dejection.

Happily, there was a talented bunch of singers on hand to infuse the arias with expressive colouring and articulation and thus bring out the dramatic content of their predicaments; and they matched this with strongly outlined characterisations of their roles. Robert Murray, the Piramo, has an unusually robust tenor for music of this period and, while meeting more than adequately the demands for trills and the like, this rang out thrillingly to communicate his unswerving passion for Tisbe. After encountering her, baritone Morgan Pearse, a dapper Alceste in appearance, transcended his gentlemanly demeanour to court the young maiden, vocalising impressively, particularly in his resonant lower register. Understandably he was resistant to the advances of the smitten shepherdess Licori. The rich contralto of Hilary Summers was so captivating in this role, and her humorous take on the dilemmas of love (if risking exaggeration) so engaging, that one could overlook some vocal imperfections. Julia Doyle was an assured Tisbe, her pure soprano successfully negotiating the intricacies in her arias, but, unlike the other performers, remained too reticent an interpreter of the music.

The orchestra under the joint direction of violinist Adrian Chandler and, at the harpsichord, Robert Howarth, attacked the score with conviction. Nevertheless – and this relates to the problem of “sameness” referred to above – the unrelentingly fast tempi adopted for the accompaniments to the more dramatic arias wore thin by the end of the evening.

From the festival brochure we had anticipated a concert performance. It was in fact semi-staged. Ironically, while the costumes and reduced scenic effects worked well,  director Mark Burns  made the mistake often encountered in productions of baroque opera, of adding too much trivial and distracting stage business. Nor did the shifts in the staging between tragic declamation and comic antics make it easy to determine whether this was genuine opera seria or a parody of the genre. Perhaps it was both.