REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Opera North’s Tosca, Leeds Grand Theatre

Opera North beneath Tim Scutt’s cupola in Tosca. All pictures: James Glossop

Opera North in Tosca, Leeds Grand Theatre; further performances on January 28, 2.30pm; February 3, 22, 25 and 28 and March 2, 7.30pm. Box office:  0113 243 0808 or On tour to Salford, Nottingham, Newcastle and Hull until April 1; more details at

EDWARD Dick’s updated production of Tosca has returned to Leeds after four and a half years and under his continued aegis on the surface not much has changed.

Still with us, remarkably, is Robert Hayward, who has held onto the role of Scarpia since Christopher Alden’s 2002 production. Giselle Allen is back in the title role. Those two alone are surely enough to bring Yorkshire audiences back in droves. Both have been stalwarts in Leeds for at least two decades, virtually company principals throughout that time.

Otherwise, interest centres on the British debut of Ukrainian tenor Mykhailo Malafii – in fact he had never set foot on these shores until the rehearsals – and the conducting of new music director Garry Walker, taking over from the (now) principal guest conductor Antony Hermus. This quartet makes a tasty combination of the tried and tested on the one hand with innovation on the other.

So, this is no mere rehash. Quite the contrary. From the moment that Callum Thorpe’s lithe Angelotti shins down the rope from Tom Scutt’s central cupola there is the excitement of fear in the air, although it is balanced by Matthew Stiff’s amusingly bumbling Sacristan and Malafii’s smiling Cavaradossi, who seems not to have a care in the world.

Giselle Allen as Tosca and Robert Hayward as Scarpia in Opera North’s Tosca

When the net tightens, the contrast is heightened. We are reminded that Scarpia is not universally despised when the priest at the close of a rousing Te Deum appears to bless him (echoes of Patriarch Kirill’s espousal of Vladimir Putin). More importantly, Tosca and Cavaradossi establish the warmth of their love in their brief rendezvous.

But Act 2 is the real clincher. The scope of Allen’s soprano is breath-taking, thrillingly determined at the top, a chesty growl of revulsion at the bottom. She has surely never sung better. As she and Hayward chased each other over and around Scarpia’s bed – his “office” in every sense – we were on the edge of our seats. This was for real.

Hayward has refined his Scarpia from a straightforward monster into something more nuanced and sinister, a wily pervert. When he wipes a tear from Allen’s cheek with his finger, it is virtually an act of abuse.

He leaves no doubt of his intentions by pleasuring himself against a bedpost. But his baritone tells us that although his lust is up, so is his anger. This is more than menace; it is hell-bent lechery. His death is horrendously gory. When his body twitched just before the curtain, the person in the next seat almost jumped out of their seat.

Bar sales undoubtedly soared in the interval as nerves were soothed. There are not the same shocks in Act 3 although Tosca’s fall backwards through the cupola, now on its side, is hair-raising enough. By now, Malafii’s tenor has reached full flow. His Act 1 sound was dry and quite tight, but as relaxation kicked in his tone warmed and resonated more broadly.

Mykhailo Malafii, in his British debut, as Cavaradossi and Giselle Allen as Tosca

As the run progresses the stars in ‘E lucevan le stelle’ will doubtless glow more brightly. Alex Banfield is a lightweight Spoletta, more PA than gangster, but Richard Mosley-Evans’s thuggish Sciarrone compensates. Bella Blood (double-cast with Hattie Cobb) is a sweet-toned Shepherd Boy. The modern tech paraphernalia of mobiles and laptops only serves to underline that there are plenty of despots still around.

In the overall analysis, Garry Walker’s orchestra is a character in its own right and pulls no punches. The horns, deprived by retirement of their legendary principal Robert Ashworth, are still right on the button at the start of Act 3; the brass in general are fiercely edgy. One can only admire the way Walker’s orchestral punctuation, especially in Act 1, is so tautly disciplined.

In last November’s round of Arts Council England grants, Opera North was “awarded” a stand-still £10.677 million per annum until 2026, effectively a serious cut. Amid the general whingeing in the British operatic world, Opera North has remained silent and simply got on with it. It’s called Yorkshire grit (as a transplanted southerner I can afford to say that). The proof of the pudding is a Tosca that any company would have been proud to mount.

Review by Martin Dreyer

Opera North’s Tosca plays Hull New Theatre on March 30 and April 1, 7pm. Box office: 01482 300306 or

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Opera North in Carmen, Leeds Grand Theatre

Chrystal E. Williams in the title role in Opera North’s Carmen. Picture: Tristram Kenton

OPERA North was riding high coming into this new Edward Dick production.

Buoyant through lockdown with multiple streamed events via its own digital platform ON Demand, its backstage efforts were centred on a huge Music Works development.

The outcome of this is the new Howard Opera Centre, named after its principal benefactor Dr Keith Howard, who contributed some 60 per cent of the £18.5 million cost. It will house management and rehearsal studios for the company itself, while providing educational spaces for youngsters to explore their potential.

Within months, a new bar and restaurant with public access will open next to the Howard Assembly Room (now freed exclusively for smaller-scale events), the result of imaginative enclosure of a former Victorian street.

Camila Titinger as Micaëla and Erin Caves as Don José in Opera North’s Carmen. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Sadly, all this excitement did not generate a Carmen to do it justice. It is a besetting sin of Carmen producers that they feel the need to re-interpret Bizet, not to say Mérimée, in tune with modern attitudes.

This runs a serious risk of dumbing down, even presumption: this show’s Carmen, Chrystal E. Williams, was quoted in the programme as declaring that “it would be easy just to do a conventional Carmen”, as if convention were a dirty word – or easy.

It is hard to portray an incorrigible man-eater as a saint, albeit one who is the figment of solely male imaginations. Indeed, after Opera North’s last attempt at the work, Daniel Kramer’s brutalist affair ten years ago, no-one would have been surprised if the company had played this one straight down the middle.

Instead, what we have is a good night out, but with little relevance to the original. Time and place are not identified in Colin Richmond’s sets, but we can tell that this is a border town. Since the smugglers are dealing in drugs, we have every reason to assume that we are on the United States-Mexico border.

Phillip Rhodes as Escamillo with members of the Chorus of Opera North. Picture: Tristram Kenton

The action opens in a bordello masquerading as a night-club, whose clientele is mainly in uniform, doubtless drawn by the illuminated ‘GIRLS’ on scaffolding dominating the scenario. Not exactly an advertisement for women’s lib, especially given female staff sashaying around in flimsy underwear, to the designs of Laura Hopkins.

If these girls are smoking anything, it is coke, not cigarettes. Still, it has to be said, the ladies of the chorus bravely put their best foot forward; if they feel uncomfortable, it certainly does not show.

Immediately noticeable is the sparkling form of the orchestra, with Garry Walker at the helm for the first time as music director, a year later than planned. Theirs is much the most positive contribution to the evening.

Walker keeps rhythms consistently crisp but is equally alive to atmosphere: nerve-jangling chromatics in the card scene, for example, and velvet horns in Micaela’s song a little later. His tenure is off to a cracking start.

Nando Messias as Lillas Pastia: “Makes several androgynous incursions during the second half”. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Neither of the principal pair is vocally quick out of the blocks and he has to gentle them into the fray. Williams is lowered on a swing onto the night-club stage, to be embroiled at once in a fan-dance: it is an eye-catching entrance, in keeping with her charm.

When the stage swivels and we see the ‘real’ Carmen – at her make-up table, wig removed, cuddling what we assume is her daughter – her mezzo, although still light, begins to bite. But it is not until Act 3 that we hear what might have been: genuine passion.

The same applies to Don José. Erin Caves only joined the cast five days ahead of curtain-up, Covid having effectively removed two previous candidates. His safely surly opening is understandable, but does little to convince of his interest in Carmen or offer any reason for her pursuit of him.

If there is any electricity at their first encounter, it is low-voltage, like Caves’ tenor. It is only when his bile is up, much later, that he finds real resonance. His eventual throttling of Carmen prolongs her agony unjustifiably.

Erin Caves as Don José and Chrystal E. Williams as Carmen. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Phillip Rhodes’ Escamillo arrives on an electrically-powered bucking bronco, a cowboy not a toreador; there is no hint of the bull-ring. The swagger of his ‘Toreador’ song certainly raises the vocal temperature but thereafter gradually dissipates, lessening the likelihood that he would offer José any real threat. So when José chases him across the scaffolding that now stands in for a mountain fortress, we are entitled to wonder what all the fuss is about.

Camila Titinger gives an engaging Micaela, whose aria is a touch short on warmth; she is mistakenly encouraged to make much of her pregnancy. Amy Freston’s Frasquita and Helen Évora’s Mercedes are tirelessly flighty, raising everyone’s spirits, while the spivvy smugglers of Dean Robinson and Stuart Laing bring an element of light relief. Matthew Stiff is a firm if stolid Zuniga.

With the Lillas Pastia of Nando Messias making several androgynous incursions during the second half, there is no end to the mixed messages of this ill-focused production. Thank heaven we have five children who know exactly what they have to do, working with a chorus that does its level best to sound persuasive. But the saving grace is the orchestra – focused on unvarnished Bizet.

Martin Dreyer

Further performances on October 26 and 28, then on tour until November 19, returning to Leeds in February 2022.