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

Sir Willard White as Monterone in Rigoletto, his first Opera North role since 1984. Picture: Clive Barda

EXPECTATION ran high in advance of this new Rigoletto from theatre director Femi Elufowoju Jr, not least because it marked his first venture into the world of opera.

Opera North’s last skirmish with Giuseppe Verdi’s piece was a grubby gangland affair in 2007 that eliminated aristocratic titles along with Giovanna. This time, according to an interview in the programme, the setting was present-day ‘Mantua, UK’, adding racism to the work’s already heavy load of problems in society.

There was absolutely nothing wrong in choosing black singers for all the “outsider” roles, headed by Rigoletto, Gilda and Count Monterone, and including Countess Ceprano and Marullo, but it became a dodgy move.

During the prelude, we saw Rigoletto being primped in a dressing-room, for what seemed like a play within a play; there was a purfling of lighting round the proscenium. Attendees at the Duke’s orgy were a scruffy lot, mainly in everyday clothes, with men in paint-splattered overalls as if they had accidentally strayed in from backstage workshops. So far, so egalitarian.

Rigoletto’s moanings about his deformity (supposedly a hunchback) fell on deaf ears: here was the tallest man in the cast, a striking figure, standing tall, albeit occasionally writhing and twitching as if having an epileptic fit.

Sharp-eyed programme-readers might have gleaned that his was mental disfigurement caused by Monterone’s curse – hard to believe. To everyone else, it looked dangerously as if skin colour was the cause of the scorn he endured, quite the opposite of the intended effect. In any case, directors should not rely on programme notes to explain what they put on stage.

Jasmine Habersham as Gilda and Eric Greene as Rigoletto. Picture: Clive Barda

There were further difficulties. The whole kidnapping episode had an aura of farce. The (mainly white) thugs were far from menacing in their vermillion onesies, brandishing electric torches in synchronisation like Keystone Cops.

Retreating, they reappeared in Coco the Clown masks. It was hard to tell whether they were intended to be figures of fun or if this was simply a directorial misjudgement. Either way, it had little to do with Verdi, still less his librettist Piave.

Gilda had to be clumsily kidnapped from astride the life-size zebra in her bedroom (her menagerie also included a toucan). Like the duke’s palace, it was gaudily decorated in red and gold designs by Rae Smith more redolent of Bollywood than Brentwood.

Rigoletto’s arrest by two heavily-armed British constables was doubtless intended to evoke the law’s use of excessive force based on colour. Uncomfortable, of course – but also irrelevant here. Indeed, so many superimposed details seemed to cloud the director’s intentions.

Eric Greene carried the title role with surprising grace, given the wide spectrum of attitudes he was supposed to strike. In mid-range, his baritone was flexible and clean, less so higher up where his focus was more diffuse.

His duet with Gilda was touching. She was Jasmine Habersham, who made a virtue of her light soprano in a poignant, delicately ornamented ‘Caro nome’. She also looked every bit the ingénue, kept apart and therefore out of her depth, even if she needed to soar more in ensemble.

Alyona Abramova as Maddalena in Opera North’s Rigoletto. Picture: Clive Barda

Roman Arndt’s self-regarding Duke seemed bent on Italianate tone at all costs, attractive enough but also mannered. Sir Willard White, returning to Leeds for the first time since 1984, injected authority as a stentorian Monterone. Callum Thorpe’s tattooed Sparafucile looked and sounded ruthless, pleasingly complemented by Alyona Abramova’s statuesque Maddalena.

They were certainly masters of the squalid landscape of Act III, with its corpse of a car, assorted detritus and shadowy lighting (Howard Hudson), a stylistic improvement on the tasteless décor earlier.

Despite the upheavals on stage, Garry Walker maintained a cool head and a decisive beat in the pit, and his orchestra reacted with discipline and confidence; the chorus was typically ebullient, if not quite as taut an ensemble as the orchestra.

But sight and sound were rarely synchronised: the director might have paid more attention to what is actually in the score. Opera audiences enjoy and understand history, even – given the chance – that of 16th century Mantua. They do not react well to having modern precepts constantly forced down their throats, especially when these have little or nothing to do with the original opera.

We still await the arrival of a director with the courage to be traditional in this work.

Martin Dreyer

Further performances: January 29, February 4, 11 and 19, then on tour until April 1. Box office: operanorth.co.uk

Zebra crossing stage: part of a Rae Smith design landscape “more redolent of Bollywood than Brentwood”. Picture: Clive Barda

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.