REVIEW: Northern Opera Group, Merrion Street Rest Garden, Leeds, August 29

Beth Moxon. “Breathed more life into Sally than the text really implied”. Picture: Nick Rutter

REVIEW: Thomas And Sally, Northern Opera Group, Merrion Street Rest Garden, Leeds, August 29

DAVID Ward will not take No for an answer. All through lockdown, as artistic director of Northern Opera Group, he kept up a flurry of releases about his plans for the company’s annual festival at the end of August, this year based around the history of opera in Leeds.

There was never doubt in his mind that the festival would not materialise. Luck was on his side, of course, and outdoor gatherings began to be allowed from the start of August.

So it was that a band of diehards gathered on the grass, suitably distanced and just round the corner from the Grand Theatre, on a cool, blustery day, to watch Thomas Arne’s two-act Thomas And Sally, or The Sailor’s Return.

Premiered at Covent Garden in late 1760, it was seen in Leeds not long afterwards, following publication of the full score the following year.

It has been Arne’s misfortune to be remembered almost exclusively for Rule, Britannia, the patriotic chorus from his masque Alfred (1740); Beethoven’s use of the tune for a set of piano variations undoubtedly enhanced its international appeal.

Arne, however, was a prolific composer of stage works in many guises. Several of these were afterpieces, short, often comic entertainments that lightened the atmosphere after a longer opera: Thomas And Sally, running to barely an hour, was one such. Its librettist was the Irish-born Isaac Bickerstaff, who also provided the text for Arne’s oratorio, Judith.

The story is a riff on a typical pastoral scenario. Innocent milkmaid Sally laments the absence of her fiancé Thomas, who has joined the navy. The local Squire sees an opportunity to capitalise, egged on by the worldly-wise matron Dorcas. When Thomas returns from the sea to claim his bride, he chases off the Squire, who is left to fume at Dorcas.

The piece is claimed as the first all-sung comic opera in English and certainly marks the first use of the clarinet by an English composer. Even as here with keyboard accompaniment, it was possible to appreciate how far Arne’s harmonic palette had broadened in the two decades since Alfred.

Naomi Rogers: “The real scene stealer”

His vocal decorations also sounded much less perfunctory. That was partly a result of the excellent treatment the work received at the hands of four singers, none of whom had been before a live audience for at least five months.

Beth Moxon’s soprano breathed more life into Sally than the text really implied, and Michael Vincent Jones’s tenor Squire moved convincingly from quizzical to lusty under the tutelage of Dorcas.

Although also billed as a tenor role, Thomas really sits lower, closer to Purcell’s Aeneas, and Egan Llyr Thomas’s strong baritonal timbre was just what was needed.

But the real scene-stealer was Naomi Rogers, whose versatile mezzo inhabited the role of Dorcas to her fingertips, finding humour in the unlikeliest places. Jenny Martins wrought miracles at the keyboard in the chilly wind.

So engaging was David Ward’s production that the traffic beyond the railings – behind a shed – passed by unnoticed.

Most of the rest of the festival took place online, a notable exception being an excellent lunchtime recital by soprano Louise Wayman, to Ward’s accompaniment, in a chilly room with windows wide open. Her wide-ranging arias reflected 300 years of operatic history in Leeds, many of them mentioned in an online exhibition, Leeds Opera Story.

Elsewhere, bass-baritone Neil Balfour and violinist Chloe Hayward commendably tackled extracts from ballad operas in five outdoor venues around Leeds.

Over the same weekend, the Orchestra of Opera North – or 13 members of it – led by the redoubtable David Greed, reopened Leeds Town Hall with Mendelssohn’s Octet and Mozart’s Symphony No 29.

Both were played with tight ensemble and considerable élan despite distancing, separated by tenor Nicholas Watts bravely duelling David Cowan’s over-keen piano in the first six numbers of Die Schöne Müllerin.

In every instance, Yorkshire grit won the day, but Ward’s dauntless optimism had led the way.

Review by Martin Dreyer