REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Opera North in ‘eco-entertainment extravaganza’ Masque Of Might, Leeds Grand Theatre

Andri Björn Róbertsson as Nebulous, Xavier Hetherington as Scrofulous and Matthew Brook as Sceptic with Chorus of Opera North members in Masque Of Might. All pictures: James Glossop

APART from Dido & Aeneas, Henry Purcell’s main contribution to drama lies in what Roger North was pleased to call “semi-operas”, no doubt with a slight sneer in his voice.

But there is plenty of drama, too, in his choral music, notably his odes for Queen Mary’s various birthdays and for St Cecilia’s Day and even – appropriately for Leeds – in The Yorkshire Feast Song of 1690.

These and more, including sacred music, provided the treasure-trove from which David Pountney cobbled together 44 musical extracts for Masque Of Might, a crazy extravaganza whose world premiere run he directs here.

Anna Dennis’s Witch in Opera North’s world premiere of Masque Of Might

There is no spoken text of any kind, merely what Pountney himself calls “creating a narrative by the law of zany juxtaposition”. In truth, Purcell’s semi-operas are not compellingly coherent either, rather the opposite. So this exercise has its justification. But it can only be understood as masque: searching for a narrative thread here is distracting, and ultimately self-defeating.

Fittingly for Opera North’s Green Season, Masque Of Might is described as an eco-entertainment. Its storyline, such as it is, subsists around dictatorship and ecology and their impact on one another. At its centre is a dictator, handily named Diktat, whose birth into a giant pram is celebrated by Tousel Blond and Strumpet Ginger, two countertenor sycophants (cue ‘Sound The Trumpet’ and ‘Come Ye Sons Of Art, Away’), and frowned on by the watching gods, Nebulous and Elena.

The latter becomes Diktat’s prime antagonist throughout. Several climate change activists are thrown into prison by an angry Diktat (‘Hear My Prayer, O Lord’), after he is warned of the earth’s declining health. One is murdered and Elena laments (‘The Plaint’ from The Fairy Queen).

Callum Thorpe as Diktat with the Masque of Might dancers at Leeds Grand Theatre

Act 2 sees Diktat at first displaying his machismo by killing a boar, but gradually the tide turns, as those who have praised Diktat now acknowledge the empty flattery that surrounds him. A series of nightmares forces Diktat to face up to nature’s cries (‘’Tis nature’s voice”) – melting glaciers, forest fires, a trembling earth – and to visit a fortune-teller for a vision of the future (Saul and the Witch of Endor).

Warned that he will forfeit his kingdom, his power crumbles and he is destroyed. Light returns and the earth’s recovery begins (‘Welcome, Welcome Glorious Morn’).

Mere narrative alongside a handful of the better-known Purcellian extracts omits episodes that see-saw between the faintly ludicrous and the deadly serious. These include slapstick clowns struggling with ironing boards; a huge sci-fi insect; a Putin look-alike puppet dangled by a Seer; a vision of Stalin as adviser in a caravan (imported from the same season’s Falstaff); death by electric chair and a chainsaw-wielding chorus.

Anna Dennis as Elena and Andri Björn Róbertsson as Nebulous in Opera North’s Masque Of Might

While Leslie Travers’s sets emphasise the value of the everyday, David Haneke’s video designs take us from circling planets to catastrophic natural events brought about by climate change and Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s kaleidoscopic costumes change moods and eras at will.

Callum Thorpe’s forthright bass exudes authority and gravitas as Diktat, a commanding presence and an admirable hate-figure. Anna Dennis’s chic soprano lends style to the otherwise under-written role of Elena and doubles usefully as the Witch. James Laing and James Hall pair well as the sycophants, although neither has quite the strength in their lower range so often demanded by Purcell from his countertenors.

Xavier Hetherington’s ringing tenor makes the most of his four roles, notably as Seer and Saul. Both Matthew Brook and Andri Björn Róbertsson offer strong baritone contributions in a variety of cameos.

Going green in Opera North’s Green Season: Chorus members in Masque Of Might

The chorus sings confidently and holds its own well in Denni Sayers’s lively choreography alongside several professional dancers, finishing as pompom-wielding cheerleaders. Harry Bicket’s expertise in earlier musics everywhere shines through his eager orchestra, whose momentum is untiring.

Although Huw Daniel is cited as editor of the musical numbers, David Pountney deserves the laurels for mounting this extraordinary show, which at the very least introduces us to parts of Purcell that others never reach. He sticks quite closely to the original texts but is not averse to making subtle alterations that fit his scenario, in a period literary style that essentially disguises their newness.

There is, for my money, not enough character-building outside that of Diktat and there is over-emphasis on baritone and countertenor voices. But as a highly imaginative revitalisation of masque, it deserves immense praise.

Further performances in Leeds until October 27, then on tour until November 16. Box office:

Review by Martin Dreyer, October 14

Jonny Aubrey-Bentley, left, Rose Ellen Lewis, Ruby Portus and Ben Yorke-Griffiths as the Masque of Might dancers in Opera North’s world premiere

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on The Cunning Little Vixen, Opera North, Leeds Grand Theatre, February 17

Stefanos Dimoulas as Dragonfly in Opera North’s The Cunning Little Vixen. Picture: Tristram Kenton

LEOS Janáček’s fairy-tale must be the greenest opera in the repertory, and not only ecologically. It remains fresh.

Equally evergreen is David Pountney’s production, whose origins lie as far back as the Edinburgh International Festival of 1980. It reached Leeds in 1984, the 60th anniversary of this piece.

Happily Pountney, now Sir David, is still around to cast an eye over this revival, although Elaine Tyler-Hall is his associate on the ground. She also resuscitates the original choreography of Stuart Hopps.

The other genius of the founding triumvirate is the late Maria Björnson, her sets and costumes a constant reminder of her supremely imaginative talents.

The rolling hills and downs of the countryside in this multi-purpose set pull back to provide the Forester’s farmyard, the tavern or the foxes’ den. The encroaching forest is cleverly evoked by overhanging branches downstage, in which birds sit screened in rocking-chairs. The ‘melting’ of the icesheets drew a spontaneous round of applause on this occasion.

Elin Pritchard’s lively Vixen Sharp-Ears wins hearts at once with her zest for life, not to say liberation. But it is combined with a youthful innocence in her tone. She and her Fox, Heather Lowe, complement each other ideally in their love-duet, the latter’s extra chest resonance supplying a touch of machismo.

Another mainstay is James Rutherford’s avuncular Forester, underpinning the link with the animal kingdom, a true countryman. Suitably disgruntled as his drinking companions are Paul Nilon’s rueful Schoolmaster and Henry Waddington’s maudlin Parson, each finely drawn.

Callum Thorpe’s vagabond poacher Harašta always carries menace. He freezes in his stance for some time after shooting Vixen, diluting the shock of the event but also allowing pause for thought about man’s treatment of nature; a key moment.

Further cruelty is handled with similar finesse. As Vixen slaughters the cock and five hens – a gleeful ensemble – each throws out red feathers as they collapse. It is no joke, of course, but is made to seem so.

Children people this show as to the manner born, none more so than the squirrels with their parasols and the ten fox-cubs, all the spitting image of their mother. Special praise, too, for the supple dancing of the Dragonfly (Stefanos Dimoulas) and the Spirit of the Vixen (Lucy Burns), as eloquent as the music.

None of these pleasures would have been possible without a conductor alive to the score’s many nuances: Andrew Gourlay is in complete command. An evening as thought-provoking as it is enchanting.

Further performances of The Cunning Little Vixen: Leeds Grand Theatre, February 23, 7pm, March 3, 7pm, and March 4, 2.30pm. Box office: 0113 243 0808 or On tour to Salford, Nottingham, Newcastle and Hull (New Theatre, March 29, school matinee, 1pm; March 31, 7pm;

Mini Vixen, a shortened family entertainment with three singers, a violinist and an accordionist will be performed at National Centre for Early Music, Walmgate, York, on February 26, 11.30am and 1.30pm. Box office: 01904 658338 or

Review by Martin Dreyer