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Rich Pickings on The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw 06

Photo: Tristram Kenton

As a child I was brought up with Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, being able to name each instrument as it comes in. Then when Derek Jarman made the film War Requiem Britten’s work became even close to my heart. So it was with great joy that I heard that Opera North (who I have described as ‘a jewel in Leeds’ cultural crown’) were to revive their 2010 production of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw.

Myfanwy Piper’s magical libretto is adapted from the story by Henry James and creates a narrative that has the psychological tenseness of any good ghost story. Here there are two ghosts: Peter Quint, which sees Nicholas Watts stepping into the shoes once worn by Britten’s creative partner Peter Pears; and Miss Jessel, played with otherworldly veracity by Eleanor Dennis.

It tells the tale of a governess called to take charge of two practically orphaned children, Flora and Miles. The only other living soul in their house is housekeeper Mrs Grose. But Quint and Jessel remain there too and we are never sure whether they return from Hades to torment or exist only in the minds of the house’s inhabitants.

The way director Alessandro Talevi tackles the difficulty of having an onstage ghost singing is a lot to do with Matthew Haskins magnificent lighting. Haskins dims the stage and highlights the ghosts’ otherness with a subtle spotlight. Much also has to be put down to Madeleine Boyd’s atmospheric yet functional set. It includes a frosted large window at which Quint appears and by which the young Miles sits in anticipation of the spirit’s apparition.

Britten’s music, of course, plays a large part too, beautifully presented by conductor of the Orchestra of Opera North, Leo McFall. The orchestra lives up to it’s incredibly high standards and the score contains a leitmotiv for the scenes with either Quint or Jessel. Boyd’s costumes are quite a wonder too, emphasising the formality of the action’s setting.

Tim Gasiorek is a revelation as Miles; Jennifer Clark also as Flora; while Sarah Tynan’s Governess is simply sublime, pitch perfect, sweet and sonorous. This is matched skillfully by Heather Shipp as Mrs Grose. And on the occasions they duet together something very fine indeed happens. But Watts’ Quint really does steal the show, amazingly conjuring up the ‘devil’ in his character that torments all he crosses.

This is Opera North at their very best: accessible yet still complex; experimental but ever true to the original at heart. Another resounding tour de force for a company that continue to both entertain and enlighten.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 21 February at Leeds Grand Theatre. See Opera North website for tour dates and times.

Rich Pickings on Opera North’s The Marriage of Figaro

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Mozart’s classic comedy is a hysterical farce with Count Almaviva (Quirijn de Lang) attempting to get his wicked way with maid Susanna (Fflur Wyn) on her wedding night according to a local tradition. Her husband-to-be Figaro (Phillip Rhodes) is rightly incensed but has a cunning plan to foil his designs.

This involves quite a complex plot which has page Cherubino (Heather Lowe) cross-dressing and the Countess (Máire Flavin) impersonating Susanna but things don’t quite go as planned. This is partly due to the the fact that Figaro is indebted to housekeeper Marcellina (Gaynor Keeble) and has agreed to marry her if the debt is not honoured. Even more incredibly she turns out to be his mother!

Director Jo Davies really plays this for laughs and successfully has us chuckling throughout the totally ridiculous scenes. And although this is a four-act three-hour show it fairly flies by. Leslie Travers’ set is both functional with its multiple doors and to be adored with its floral wallpaper. It is moved from act to act so it can be the wedding couple’s bedroom, the Countess’ boudoir or the Count’s study at will.

While Gabrielle Dalton’s costumes are to die for and add greatly to the appeal of the piece. Orchestra of Opera North are on fine form as ever under the baton of Antony Hermus. And Chorus of Opera North add brilliantly to the interpretation of the score especially on the double wedding scene. The ensemble are simply fantastic with Flavin particularly outstanding making every note count with her sweet vocals.

So Opera North continue their season (following Street Scene) with great skill and aplomb.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 1 February 2020 at Leeds Grand Theatre. Tours till 21 March. See Opera North website for dates, times and venues.

Rich Pickings on La boheme

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Photo: Richard H. Smith

Michael Barker-Craven again directs Phyllida Lloyd’s radical 1993 creation, and the setting is still Paris in the 1950s.

Lauren Fagan’s Mimì depicts the poor girl’s desperate illness as the result of her decadent lifestyle and most of the second half is spent rallying round her seekimg to find the fees for a doctor, although perhaps we really know it has all come too late.

But it is not all doom and gloom as we see the streets packed with last-minute Christmas shoppers and this has a delightful musical accompaniment.Renato Balsadonna conducted the Orchestra of Opera North with masterful skill, taking as through tender intimate moments to more powerful and brash sequences.

La boheme ranges from jovial frivolity to heart-felt tragedy and perhaps the moral of the tale that dissolute living comes at a cost. Anush Hovhannisyan as Musetta is totally outrageous and seems to enjoy playing and teasing both her sugar daddy and ex-lover in equal amounts.

The four bohemians Rodolfo (Eleazar Rodriguez), Marcello (Yuriy Yurchuk), Colline (Emyr Wyn Jones) and Schaunard (Henry Neill) are utterly endearing and passionate about their cultural creations, destitute or not.

Anthony Ward’s design is incredibly effective at conjuring up the Parisian scene and capable of drab foreboding darkness to colourful moments too. This concludes a very fine season for Opera North, a company who pull out all the stops to take on their radically eclectic repertoire.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons at Leeds Grand Theatre. See https://www.operanorth.co.uk/whats-on/la-boheme/ for tour dates.

Rich Pickings on Opera North’s Giulio Cesare

'Giulio Cesare' Opera performed by Opera North Company

Photo: Alastair Muir

Libretto: Nicola Francesco, after Giacomo Francesco

Music: George Frideric Handel

Conductor: Christian Curnyn

Director: Tim Albery

Reviewer: Rich Jevons

Set in the war between Rome and Egypt Handel’s classic opera is revived from Opera North’s 2012 production with immense success by Tim Albery. The ensemble are simply superb with Maria Sanner crossing genders as Giulio Cesare with perfect pitch and some great acting too.

His adversary Tolomeo, King of Egypt, is played with suitable malice and brutality by James Laing. While his sister Cleopatra (the seductive Lucie Chartin) simply steals the show. She woos Cesare posing as her own servant Lydia, and in a particularly sensual scene carefully removes her stockings leaving them for Cesare to cease as a lover’s treasure.

Following the murder of Pompeo (a brief scene for Jem Dobbs) his wife Cornelia (a fine performance by Catherine Hopper) and son Sesto vow revenge. At first it seems as if Tolomeo is going to get his wicked way with the help of Achilla, general of the Egyptian army. But fate rescues Cesare from the waves and Cleopatra from prison so the perfect ending transpires.

The Orchestra of Opera North are particularly in fine form matching the on-stage passionate drama. Leslie Travers’ set and costume design are equally excellent with a revolving stage pushed by Egyptian servants which then opens up into palatial splendour. Being cut down from over four hours to three gives the work more intensity and focus in another Opera North tour de force, following the outstanding Greek Passion.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons for Rich Pickings on 28 September 2019 at Leeds Grand Theatre, see Opera North website for tour dates.

Rich Pickings on Opera North’s The Greek Passion

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Martinu’s masterpiece The Greek Passion marks the new season for both Opera North and Rich Pickings. Under the masterful MD Garry Walker musically this is absolutely essential and resounds with burning passion. And the libretto, based on Kazantzakis’ novel Christ Recrucified, is a gripping rollercoaster of intense emotions.

Nicky Spence excels in his depiction of the shepherd Manolios who plays a troubled and tormented Jesus in the village passion play. While Magdalena Molendowska as the widow Katenna is a seductive soprano playing her namesake Mary Magdalene with sexy allure. Paul Nilon is the postman Yannakos who has his bicycle replace the traditional donkey for Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. Picking the short straw is Panait (a duplicitous Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts) as Judas.

After being introduced to the key players we are confronted by a large group of refugees fleeing Turkish persecution. They beg for mercy but find none at the hands of village priest Grigoris (a pseudo-religious Steven Gadd) who flatly rebuts their pleas citing the danger of cholera. And the refugees’ priest Fotis (a lively John Savournin) is forced to take his congregation to the mountains.

As the play ensues we see the division between the two camps, the haves and the havenots, even though those in the Passion play do attempt to live up to their fictional roles. It is a fateful end for Manolios and one quite befitting the regime of fear and panic over the refugees and the collapse of a benevolent and peaceful Christianity. The show has many repercussions for contemporary society and Opera North’s own stance as a Theatre of Sanctuary.

As a regular Opera North reviewer I have to say this is one of the finest productions I’ve had the pleasure to see, with all aspects of the show binding together into a supremely moving and touching whole.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons at Leeds Grand Theatre on 14 September 2019. See Opera North website for further dates.

Rich Pickings on Opera North – Magic Flute @ Leeds Grand Theatre

Magic-Flute-04 Alastair Muir

Photo: Alastair Muir

What better way to start the spring season (a tad late I know) than with my favourite Mozart opera The Magic Flute. Director James Brining brings much richness to this his first take on opera with many inventive devices and magical touches.

Kang Wang as Tamino is simply superb, living up to his regal position with finesse and grace, not to mention a vocal to die for. But the star of the show has to be Gavan Ring as Papageno, a perfect match for the role of a simple soul set on an adventure to rescue Pamina, the daughter of the Queen of the Night.

Colin Richmond’s set starts as brilliantly as it means to go on culminating in daunting design for Sarastro’s masonic lodge. It is interesting that amongst the frequent hilarity there is also a quite profound quest for attaining the highest form of life on earth.

Robert Howarth leads the orchestra with masterful skill and the score has rarely seemed so exquisite. We are relieved of course when both Tamino and Papageno meet their perfect partners and pass the initiation test for joining Sarastro’s cult.

This is a charming rendition of a classic piece that is beguilingly complex yet under Brining’s hand has a certain naivete too.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 20 February 2019 at Leeds Grand Theatre. See Opera North website for tour dates.

 

Rich Pickings on Opera North’s Not Such Quiet Girls

Not Such Quiet Girls 01_credit Justin Slee

Photo: Justin Slee

In stark contrast to Silent Night which only contained one female role in a cast of 100 Jessica Walker’s Not Such Quiet Girls is an all-women cast with only the Musical Director Joseph Atkins as a lone male. Walker’s research included looking at the work of Vera Brittain (Testament of Youth), Helen Zinna Smith (Not So Quiet) and Mary Borden (The Forbidden Zone). So she focuses on the war effort provided by women at the front working ambulances to transport the wounded to countryside hospitals.

We see four women in these roles enduring the harsh realities of war but for Mary in particular (played by Tara Divina) as a fresh recruit she finds it very hard to handle.

But despite such hardships these women feel a sense of freedom which comes to a head in the lesbian affair between Harry (Laura Prior) and Tony (Cora Kirk). The show benefits from the enchanting music hall songs performed by Chorus of Opera North, which also advances the narrative.

Jacqui Honess-Martin’s design is made up of palettes which have many uses but mainly as the cast’s sleeping quarters. And above us, in a mesh of barbed wire, are indicators of being near the front line. The fusion of song, dance, drama and music is particularly effective and drives the narrative at a pace appropriate to the tensions of war. The show is bookended with a link between 1918 and 2018 and the primary message from this is that although same sex partnerships are now more common but homophobia is still rife.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds on 1 December 2018

Rich Pickings on Opera North’s Silent Night

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Photo: Tristram Kenton

With sterling work from composer Kevin Puts and an immaculate libretto by Mark Campbell, Opera North take on the challenge of depicting the few hours of peace on Christmas Eve 1914. Before entering Leeds Town Hall’s auditorium dotted around the building are singers giving hearty renditions of such wartime classics as Keep the Home Fires Burning and O Tannenbaum. And then also there were actors reading letters from the front about the extraordinary event that is the subject of the opera.

Nicholas Kok masterfully conducts the complexities of Opera North and Opera North Youth choruses, students from the Royal Northern College of Music and a soldiers’ chorus made up of local singers.

The piece belies the fact this is Puts’ first opera and is intensely theatrical. Campbell’s libretto gives depth of meaning to the accounts of French, German and Scottish troops’ wartime experience and this temporary and delicate truce.

Quirijn de Lang excels as French lieutenant Audebert and is matched by Rupert Charlesworth’s passionate role as Sprink. While his lover, Máire Flavin as Anna Sørensen, as the only woman in the production is ideally suited to the role.

There are no holds barred to depict the horror of war and this makes the thought of a seasonal peace all the more remarkable. What many of us may not have realised though was the three regiments’ superiors horrified reaction to this, with those responsible being reprimanded.

Tim Albery’s staging makes the most out of very little space onstage, and the use of First World War footage projected onto the Hall’s organ is impressive. Hannah Clark’s costumes add to the realism while Thomas C Hase’s lighting provides dramatic effects.

Act 1 ends with a remarkable Christmas Eve Mass led by the chaplain, Father Palmer, played with sensitivity by Adrian Clarke. Also incredibly moving is the cease-fire maintained for burying the dead on Christmas Day. And the finale continues the emotional intensity as the stage empties of soldiers and we are left with notes from a harmonica then harp to end this engaging and profound production.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons at Leeds Town Hall on 30 November 2018

Rich Pickings on Opera North’s The Merry Widow

The Merry Widow - Franz Lehar - Opera North - 29th September 2018

Hanna Glawari - Maire Flavin
Count Danilo - Quirijn de Lang
Baron Zeta - Geoffrey Dolton
Baroness Valenciennes Zeta - Amy Feston
Camille de Rosillon - Nicholas Watts
Bogdanovitch - Nichola

Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow becomes an Edwardian period piece set in Paris 1905 in this excellent Opera North revival. It is full of timeless tunes and benefits from Kit Hesketh-Harvey’s and Giles Harvergal’s English libretto which is extremely accessible and direct.
Soprano Máire Flavin sings Hanna Glawari with great skill, the widow from the fictitious country of Pontevedra whose wealth is sought after by numerous would-be lovers. Geoffrey Dolton plays Baron Zeta, the Pontevedrian ambassador in Paris who wants Hanna to keep her cash in the home country by marrying a compatriot in order to avoid his country’s economic downfall.
But alongside her own country’s suitors come a plethora of French admirers which really sets the cat amongst the dogs. So love is very much in the air throughout, though sometimes with dubious motives.
Baritone Quirijn de Lang is a terrific Danilo, a previous lover of Hanna’s who now refuses to marry her for her money. Leslie Travers’ Art Nouveau set is simply exquisite. And there is cutting edge and precise choreography by Stuart Hopps with dancing that includes the can-can at Maxim’s
Full of wit and humour this is ultimately an escapist’s dream, brimming with a sense of fun and frolics. You leave really knowing this is a show with a feel-good factor beyond our highest hopes and deepest desires.
Reviewed by Rich Jevons at Leeds Grand Theatre on 29 September 2018. See www.operanorth.co.uk for tour dates.
Photo: Robert Workman

Rich Pickings on Opera North’s Tosca

 

Edward Dick’s disturbing dystopia displays masterful direction in its depiction on how church and state collude to wield oppressive power. Giselle Allen’s Tosca, the demanding diva, is simply brilliant. While Rafael Rojas’ Camaradossi as the artist painting Mary Magdalene reveals further fine talent. Then John Savourin’s Angeletti from the moment he descends by rope onto the stage to his tragic end matches the ensemble’s operatic magic.
But perhaps the star of the show is Robert Hayward’s scarily sadistic Scarpia which is convincing as this evil villain who schemes to humiliate his rival Angeletti and rape the seductive Tosca. Conductor Antony Hermus is exceptionally powerful and the design easily transports us from the traditional setting of 1800 Rome to a more modern violent dictatorship.
As ever, Opera North are pushing the boundaries of opera with such novel inventions as a laptop and webcams but, above all, remain true to the fabulous finesse of Puccini’s work.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 7 September 2018 at Leeds Grand Theatre.

Photo: Richard H Smith

See the Opera North website for tour dates.