Opera north

Modest means, but striking results: Opera North’s La rondine reviewed

Opera North is ending its autumn season with a big-hearted production of a lopsided opera. There’s much to love about Puccini’s La rondine, and much to drive you up the wall. This bittersweet love story about an older woman and a younger man, set in Paris and Nice and channelling the operetta sweetness and sparkle of Puccini’s great friend Lehar, ought to sweep you off your feet. Instead, it tempts critics into that most shameless form of condescension, the armchair rewrite. Giacomo, old chap, isn’t five minutes into Act One a bit soon to be introducing your big hit aria? We’re halfway through Act Two: shouldn’t the lovers be together

Bold, self-assured reimagining of Monteverdi: Opera North’s Orpheus reviewed

You wouldn’t like Tamerlano when he’s angry. ‘My heart seethes with rage,’ he sings, in Act III of Handel’s opera – spraying coloratura about the stage like Silly String on a 1980s kids’ TV show. That’s the deal with baroque opera: the emotional register is extreme and you’re either in the moment or you might as well leave the theatre. Literal realism, clearly, is not the point – making it even more necessary for a modern director to sketch in some hint of a social or cultural framework in which we can locate and comprehend these hyper-real characters. The music is too hot and too strong to work as drama

A completely satisfying operatic experience: Opera North’s Parsifal reviewed

When Parsifal finally returns to Montsalvat, it’s Good Friday. He’s trodden the path of suffering but now the sun is shining. Confused, he turns to the aged and broken Gurnemanz: why, on this day of utmost grief, does not the whole of nature mourn? Gurnemanz gestures at the woods and meadows, glowing, as Wagner tells us, in the morning light: ‘You see, it is not so.’ At this point in Opera North’s new concert staging, Parsifal (Toby Spence), Gurnemanz (Brindley Sherratt) and Kundry (Katarina Karneus) are sitting on the lip of the stage, as if having a quiet chat and – with a gentle relaxation of the shoulders, the smallest

Old-school excess, star power and spectacle: Royal Opera’s Tosca reviewed

London felt like its old self on Friday night. Possibly it was just me; when you visit the capital once a week, your impressions will only ever be snapshots. Still, it’s been a while since I’ve battled such a flood tide of commuters on the ramp at Euston, or since the Royal Opera House seemed to be buzzing quite so excitedly. Crowds were four deep at the champagne bar; a latecomer in a spangly tux squeezed past and into his seat, grinning a slightly tipsy apology. And at the heart of it all — the succulent hunk of well-aged rump steak generating all this sizzle — was a revival of

Clear, complex and gripping: Opera North’s Rigoletto reviewed

Say what you like about that Duke of Mantua, but he’s basically an OK sort of bloke. A bit of an arse, sure; the kind of TOWIE-adjacent, skinny jean-wearing reality star who’d commission photographic portraits of himself and recruit an entourage of hipsters and B-boy wannabes. But really, his worst crimes are against taste. His neon-lit crib might be hung with hideous religious art, but his parties are relatively free of the nudity, quaffing and non-consensual dry-humping that tends to characterise Act One of Verdi’s Rigoletto. In Femi Elufowoju Jr’s new staging for Opera North, the Duke lays on a hog roast for his posse but doesn’t forget to order

We’ll be talking about Royal Opera’s Jenufa two decades from now

Leos Janacek cared about words. He’d hang about central Brno, notebook in hand, eavesdropping on conversations and trying to capture their exact rhythm and intonation in scribbled semitones and quavers. So there’s a tidy irony in the fact that the opera that made his name isn’t really called Jenufa at all. Janacek called it Jeji Pastorkyna, and if it’s easy enough for non-Czech speakers to understand why that was never likely to travel, it’s not without consequence. Another woman drives this story, and in the original title she’s present but unnamed: Jenufa’s stepmother, described simply as Kostelnicka, or churchwarden. Jeji Pastorkyna translates roughly as ‘Her Stepdaughter’. No matter. When you

Weill’s Broadway opera is made for telly: Opera North’s Street Scene reviewed

It’s a sweltering night in Manhattan, circa 1947, and on the doorstep of a brownstone tenement three women are waiting for their menfolk to return. There’s plenty to gossip about. The Hildebrands upstairs are being evicted tomorrow, and the Buchanans are expecting a baby. And what’s the deal with Mrs Maurrant and Steve the milkman? Old Mr Kaplan reads the newspaper and denounces the bourgeoisie. A kid cadges a dime and big, kind Lippo Fiorentino arrives home from work with ice creams for everyone. At which point it becomes fairly safe to conclude that the America of Kurt Weill’s Street Scene is not the America of his Mahagonny. Forget the

The Rite stuff

It was Stravinsky himself who suggested that, in order to preserve its difficulty, the opening bassoon solo of The Rite of Spring should be raised by a semitone every decade. And it was a performance by Birmingham Royal Ballet in 2005 that convinced me that he wasn’t entirely joking. The audience nattered away over the opening bars; the unlucky bassoonist wobbled and cracked. Clearly, this orchestra was not remotely prepared for what was about to hit it. Rhythms splintered like shrapnel and misplaced entries spattered across every silence. As they hurtled into the final Sacrificial Dance, you could almost hear the prayers of musicians audibly struggling simply to hang on.

Janacek’s rare gem

Janacek’s upsetting opera Katya Kabanova, which hasn’t been seen in the UK for some time, turned up in two different productions over the weekend, with a third to follow in Scotland. The Opera North production by Tim Albery dates from 2007, when it was conducted by Richard Farnes with the clarity and passion which characterises all his work. This revival had Sian Edwards making her Opera North debut, and all told it had a slightly muted quality. The paradoxical jagged lyricism of Janacek’s orchestral writing only struck home intermittently, and there were stretches which could almost have been by Smetana, against whom Janacek partly defined himself. Albery’s production and Hildegard

Dream ticket

Spoiler alert: it’s all a dream. At least, I think that’s what we’re meant to take away from the business with which director James Brining accompanies the overture to Mozart’s The Magic Flute. A little girl in ochre pyjamas is trying to sleep while in an adjacent room braying, guffawing adults sit down to a formal dinner. Servants bustle about, and there’s a suggestion that all is not well in the hosts’ marriage. Then sleep descends with a David Lynch-like fizzle of electric lights and we’re pitched into a world of princes, serpents and enchantment. Opera directors love unloading on overtures: obscuring the composer’s own musical pathway into their world

Top scorer

Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess springs to life fully formed, and pulls you in before a word has been sung. A whirlwind flourish; the hectic bustle of violins and xylophone, and then a quick fade into an image of a woman cradling a child and ‘Summertime’, the very first number we hear sung. The aria’s fame actually serves the drama. The thrill of musical recognition as the curtain rises on an unfamiliar world is replaced by astonishment at the dramatic instinct that allows Gershwin to expend a melody like that before his story has even started, in the certain knowledge that what follows can, and absolutely will, live up to what

Murderer or Madonna?

At the end of Act Two of Tosca there are some 30 bars of orchestral music — accompaniment to a very specific set of stage directions. During this time Tosca takes two candles and places them on either side of the dead Scarpia’s head. She then removes a crucifix from the wall and lays it on his chest. The tableau is a messy, bloody one, but the message is clear: here the politics of religion and the religion of politics are one and the same. A pietà or the body of a thug? A murderer or a Madonna? It’s all just a matter of spin. In a year of embattled

Hot and seedy

Salome is my favourite opera by Richard Strauss, the only one where there is no danger, at any point, of his lapsing into good taste, which there is to some degree in all his other operas, even if only momentarily. With Salome, from the opening quiet clarinet slithering upwards, and the luckless young Syrian Narraboth, later in the work to stab himself to death without anyone noticing, remarking for the first of many times how beautiful the princess Salome is tonight, we know we are in for a mischievous orgy of lust and violence. The work’s chromaticism isn’t used to make particular expressive points but to create and sustain an

Accentuate the negative

A chaste act of adultery and a silent conversation: these are the encounters at the heart of Un ballo in maschera. On paper Verdi’s opera is a hot-blooded political thriller climaxing in a regicide, but in the watching it’s something entirely other. Just like the buoyant score, whose ‘aura of gaiety’ seems so at odds with the dark subject matter, the drama of Ballo is a sustained act of misdirection. The focus in this unusual piece is not on action and event but on absences, unspokens — the negative and not the photograph is what absorbs Verdi so compellingly here. When the Italian censors, troubled by the on-stage assassination of

Body language | 25 January 2018

One of the Royal Opera’s greatest virtues is the care it takes with its revivals, even those that are virtually annuals, such as Jonathan Kent’s Tosca, the unnecessary replacement for Zeffirelli’s classic production. Kent’s version, with elaborate sets by the much-missed Paul Brown, was unveiled in 2006 and now has its ninth revival. It is a sloppy affair — three stars thrown together on the stage and told to get on with it. Since there is plenty of furniture around, and two precipitous flights of stairs, that isn’t as easy as it would be in any other UK production. When movements onstage are as haphazard as they were on the

Pole position | 5 October 2017

Did you know that they used to make the Fiat 126 in the Eastern bloc? They did, apparently. There was a plant at Bielsko-Biala, and the car was widely driven throughout Poland in the 1970s, when you only had to wait a couple of years to buy one. It became an emblem of personal freedom, and Poles even gave it a nickname: Maluch, or ‘little one’. That’s the principal insight that I gleaned from director Karolina Sofulak’s decision to set Cavalleria rusticana in communist Poland. She explains her thinking in the programme book: essentially, 19th-century Sicily was Catholic and repressive, and 1970s Poland was Catholic and repressive, so why not?

Small wonders

It has been a reasonably good week for peripatetic opera-loving female-underwear fetishists. In La bohème at Covent Garden Musetta slipped out of her knickers and swung them round, as everyone, except me, mentioned in their reviews; and now, in Leeds, in the first of Opera North’s ‘Little Greats’, what laughter the actors in the drama got was from Tonio and others trying on Nedda’s bra. This new production of Pagliacci by Charles Edwards, sadly under-attended, was possibly too ingenious. It is set in a rehearsal room, and we see the first day of rehearsals and then the final run-through. It kind of works, but anyone unfamiliar with the opera would

Stand and deliver

Some opera-lovers prefer concert performances to full stagings. I don’t. It’s that whole Gesamtkunstwerk thing: opera needs to be seen as well as heard. There’ll always be circumstances in which concert performances are welcome — to rescue a neglected score, say, or if a symphony orchestra wants to stretch itself. But when a major company presents standard repertoire in concert, it feels like an admission of defeat. Opera North recently mounted a magnificent concert version of Wagner’s Ring — but for all the brave talk about a ‘radically stripped-back’ production, who seriously doubts that, if funds had allowed, it’d rather have gone the whole way? Now it’s doing Turandot in

Losing the plot | 9 February 2017

Fully to enjoy Opera North’s new production of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel you need to take a trinocular perspective on it, but you can enjoy it a lot anyway. You could be mystified, if you don’t know the story, by the setting and action, as indeed I was some of the time despite having recently watched a straightforward account of it from Vienna on DVD, and having seen countless productions of it. So I would advise at least reading the plot. As so often with contemporary operatic productions, the synopsis in the programme book bears only a passing resemblance to what you see on the stage. If you are conscientious

Snow blindness

Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden has not received a professional staging in the UK for 60 years. Think about that for a moment, and what it says about British operatic priorities. Sixty years of Massenet and early Verdi, of Manon Lescaut and Donizetti ‘rediscoveries’. Not that those aren’t worth having, as part of a healthy and balanced operatic diet. But the fact that during those six decades no major company showed any curiosity about an acknowledged masterpiece by one of the 19th century’s most prolific and original musical dramatists is perverse, to say the least. The musicologist Richard Taruskin, who’s nobody’s idea of a soft touch, points out that in addition