REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Opera North, Così fan Tutte, Leeds Grand Theatre

Alexandra Lowe as Fiordiligi, left, Gillene Butterfield as Despina and Heather Lowe as Dorabella in Opera North’s Cosi fan Tutte. Picture: James Glossop

TIM Albery was back to mastermind his 2004 production, his second Così here, and it retained a good deal of its earlier impact.

Tobias Hoheisel’s camera obscura focused attention nicely, beckoning us to gaze at the frailty of human emotions under the microscope. His setting was otherwise traditional and encouraged teamwork without gimmickry, but always with an eye towards what Germaine Greer was pleased to call comitragedy.

Clemens Schuldt, a new conductor here, encouraged the pathos in the score. Oddly enough, this had a connection to the approach of Quirijn de Lang’s Don Alfonso, beautifully enunciated but always with a wistfulness that foresaw the disappointments. He was not so much a puppeteer as a wise head on old shoulders offering advice, not revelling in winning his wager.

The initial pairings to some extent belied the characters we saw. While Alexandra Lowe’s Fiordiligi was the more circumspect of the sisters, her Guglielmo, Henry Neill, always had a twinkle in his eye, which could imply that he was untrustworthy.

Heather Lowe (no relation) made an adventurous Dorabella, opposite a Ferrando in Anthony Gregory who was a distinctly cool fish. In other words, the couples seemed much better suited when they changed over. What in fact happened was that sharedcircumstances smoothed out the emotions of all four so that any coupling was likely to work – but in this production that was properly left unresolved.

At the final curtain, we could only weep that they had all made such a mess of things, a perfectly legitimate tactic on Albery’s part and one that gave the evening greater depth.

Stir into the mix a Despina in Gillene Butterfield who affected to be on more or less the same social level as her employers: witty enough as doctor or lawyer, she was otherwise too caught up in the fray.

The singing was never less than high quality. Alexandra Lowe’s soprano reflected her emotions excellently, while Heather Lowe’s forthright Dorabella made ‘Il cor vi dono’ the vocal highlight of the show. Neill’s flexible baritone balanced his movements superbly: he is a natural creature of the stage.  Gregory’s tenor, dry at first, warmed as the evening progressed, in keeping with his character.

Schuldt was attentive to his orchestra and maintained a good balance with the stage, always favouring his woodwinds. Albery had done it again, teamwork his first concern.

Review by Martin Dreyer 2/2/2024

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