No joke for Ross Noble as Humournoid show in York has to be delayed…again

Noble nobbled: Pandemic has forced Ross Noble to rearrange his Humournoid show at the Grand Opera House, York, for a second time

SURREALIST comedian Ross Noble is moving his January 21 2021 gig at the Grand Opera House, York, to January 29 2022.

In his Humournoid show, Noble, 44, asks: “What happens when pure comedy takes human form? What happens when a creature is created and bred to do stand-up?”

“Nobody knows because that isn’t a thing,” says the off-the-cuff Newcastle humorist. What is a thing, he argues, is Ross Noble doing a show. “You can come and see it. This is it,” he urges.

Later this year, Noble’s Humournoid tour is booked into Leeds Town Hall for October 26, rearranged from May 31 2020. Tickets for his 8pm York gig are on sale at atgtickets.com/venues/grand-opera-house-york/; for Leeds, at leedstownhall.co.uk.

Noble, who last visited the Grand Opera House on his El Hablador travels in October 2018, first announced Humournoid, his 17th nationwide tour, would play York on April 30 2020. Here’s hoping for third time lucky.

REVIEW: Opera North in Fidelio, Leeds Town Hall, December 12, and online

Oliver Johnston as Jaquino, Rachel Nicholls as Leonore, Brindley Sherratt as Rocco and Fflur Wyn as Marzelline in Opera North’s Fidelio. All pictures: Richard H Smith

BEETHOVEN’S birthdate remains a mystery. But he was certainly baptised on December 17, 1770.

So, this concert staging took place on, or very near, the 250th anniversary of his birth. It could hardly have been a more thrilling occasion, even considering that it was compulsorily live-streamed, without the intended audience, as the pandemic bit harder in West Yorkshire. 

There was from the start an extraordinarily upbeat flavour to the evening. It was as if every last ounce of the suppressed anger we were all feeling about the coronavirus was being channelled into sheer, bloody-minded determination to beat this enemy. No composer does anger better than Beethoven. Opera North was out to prove the point.

You could imagine different productions. But you would be hard put to find one in which every last one of the performers – soloists, chorus, orchestra, all under Mark Wigglesworth – was not merely on terrific form but prepared to shed sweat and tears in the cause. Call it wartime spirit, call it Yorkshire grit. In any case, the level was astounding given that so many of them had been like beached whales since early spring.

This was a bare-bones Fidelio, and all the better for that. In the pre-match interviews, both principals had questioned the weight of voices Beethoven had used at the 1805 premiere. Not that excuses were being made: both Rachel Nicholls as Leonore and Toby Spence as Florestan had plenty of heft when needed. But we have become inured to hearing something close to Wagnerian sopranos and heldentenors in these roles. They were not necessary here.

Social distancing had reduced the orchestra to Mozartian dimensions, with a chorus of only 24 wide-spaced across the bleachers behind. This was virtually Fidelio as chamber opera. But the town hall’s bright acoustic belied the small numbers. Not only were there no props or costumes, there was no dialogue either.

Rachel Nicholls as Leonore: “A relatively slight figure, she now produces astonishing power and intensity without loss of focus”

This meant the excision of the often-misleading exchanges in Act 1 as well as the Melodrama in Act 2. In their place we had brief English narrations devised by David Pountney and spoken in gently judicial tones by Matthew Stiff’s decisive Don Fernando.

Otherwise, Matthew Eberhardt’s production stuck to sung German, with the sole exception of Jacquino’s spoken ‘Der Minister Ist Hier!’.  Pountney did not attempt to summarise the dialogue, merely to set each new scene. With the interval also eliminated, the spotlight was firmly focused on the drama. The result was undeniably gripping, Beethoven red in tooth and claw.

Rachel Nicholls has come a long way from her early music days. A relatively slight figure, she now produces astonishing power and intensity without loss of focus. There was righteous anger to burn at the start of ‘Abscheulicher!’ but it melted into a lovely spirituality at ‘Komm, Hoffnung’; the horns gave superb support.

Toby Spence, barefoot on a small dais slightly below and in front of the stage, can rarely have sung with such splendidly burnished tone, a picture of perseverance and resolution. Together they generated an ecstatic ‘O Namenlose Freude!’, all the more laudable given that an embrace was out of the question. They seemed to feed off each other’s joy.

Oliver Johnston delivered an urgent, concerned Jaquino, much more than the usual cipher, while Fflur Wyn – another whose voice has grown in recent years – made a warm Marzelline and Brindley Sherratt a genial, compliant Rocco.

Toby Spence as Florestan: “Can rarely have sung with such splendidly burnished tone, a picture of perseverance and resolution”

Robert Hayward injected unrelenting menace into his Pizarro, to the point where we might have suspected it was all hot air. Such is the lot of the baddie.

The chorus, who had risen slowly and sporadically from their seats for their venture into the sunshine, drove the rest of their energy into a thunderous finale.

Wigglesworth’s decisive baton drew consistently tidy, transparent tone from his orchestra, all the more impressive since distancing must have made each player feel like a soloist. 

Peter Maniura’s TV direction found a pleasing balance between close-up and ensemble, while we could forgive English subtitles that lapsed into hyperbole with ‘Let us celebrate all magnificent women’ at the close, hardly what the libretto tells us.

It was decidedly a new-look Fidelio, with drama winning out over decibels. Who would have thought that a rescue opera would be loosening our shackles two centuries on? We have Beethoven to thank.

Online on demand via www.operanorth.co.uk until January 4

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Leeds Lieder Festival, Leeds Town Hall, October 29 to 31

“Lieder singing is not normally associated with countertenors,” says Martin Dreyer. “Iestyn Davies (pictured) is bidding to change all that. Why not?”

LEEDS Lieder, scheduled for April, refused to be cowed by Covid and courageously got in under the wire at Leeds Town Hall, five days before total lockdown returned.

The format was necessarily compacted, with each of the three evenings having an established star and a younger talent in a warm-up role. Not that the newer names were in any way lesser lights.

For the record, the situation in the hall was far from normal. An audience of some 150 – about a tenth of normal capacity – was seated in singles and pairs, socially distanced and fully masked. There was neither interval nor refreshments.

Yet no-one was in the slightest mood to complain, partly due to exemplary stewarding, but mainly because it was sheer delight to hear singers in the flesh again after so long.

The tenor Ian Bostridge and York countertenor Iestyn Davies began and ended the festival, with Schubert’s big cycles, Winterreise (Winter Journey) and Die schöne Müllerin (The Fair Maid Of The Mill) respectively, with soprano Louise Alder between, in a colourful medley of Grieg, Rachmaninov and Strauss. All were ably supported by Joseph Middleton’s piano. (Although all songs were in German, their titles are given here in English only).

Bostridge had a less than perfect start to his day. Finding all trains from London to Leeds cancelled, he had to hire a car and arrived a mere 30 minutes before the recital began. But we would not have guessed, apart from slight stiffness in his walk to the platform.

He has chalked up more than a century of Winterreises, but his approach was never jaded; eccentric, perhaps, but never hackneyed. For Bostridge rarely stands still; he is a peripatetic performer, propelled by the depth and urgency of his emotions. That we could easily forgive – although the online audience might have experienced some to-ing and fro-ing as he veered in and out of microphone range. This was so much more than mere travelogue: here was a loner searching for consolation in nature while at the edge of sanity.

The traveller’s early hopes began to dissipate in the baritonal timbre that Bostridge conjured for Frozen Tears, with traces of derangement apparent in an internalised Numbness. The brief solace of friendship with the linden tree turned to anger in Flood.

When he rested his head on the piano for several seconds after On The River, we could not tell whether the traveller’s mental balance or the singer’s personal fatigue was the cause. It mattered not: by now, we were with both of them every step of the way. A moment of lucidity came in the middle of Backward Glance and the final arching phrase of Will-o’-the-Wisp was memorably intense.

Thereafter, the traveller’s stability became more erratic. An eerie pianissimo at the heart of Dream Of Spring belied its rather jaunty opening; the determination in Loneliness was undermined by the vain hopes dashed in The Post.

Voice and piano alike turned even more manic in Last Hope, and The Stormy Morning said more about the wanderer than the weather. There was hopelessness in The Signpost, all sense of direction disappearing, and even the warmth of The Inn was made to seem illusionary by a fortissimo postlude.

Thereafter, all that was left was hallucination in The Mock Suns and total despair in The Hurdy-gurdy Man, which was a prayerful recitative. Bostridge’s tone reflected all these moods. But in the face of the stupendous drama he generated, the technicalities of his sounds became strangely unimportant.

Louise Alder’s recital came almost as light relief the following evening. She opened with the six songs of Grieg’s Op 48, settings of unrelated German poets. Her fresh soprano and expressive features were at once engaging, as was her ability to conjure different moods in a trice.

Witty and streetwise in Uhland’s Way Of The World, she conversely found an innocent wonder for The Discreet Nightingale, to a troubadour text. Romantic yearning suffused Goethe’s The Time Of Roses, whereas Bodenstedt’s A Dream was gripping, almost nightmarish, before a triumphal end.

“Louise Alder is a singing actress of immense talent, never less than delightful here,” says reviewer Martin Dreyer

There was a childlike naivety to Rachmaninov’s six songs, Op 38, notably in the nostalgia of Daisies and the mounting excitement of Pied Piper. In Strauss’s Four Last Songs (Ernst Roth’s title, not the composer’s), she raised her game still further.

There was admirable control in the high, arching lines of Spring and an autumnal warmth in September. But the peak of her achievement came in Going To Bed, floated effortlessly, distilling Hesse’s lyric into a glimpse of eternity. It was a pin-drop moment.

The long phrases of Eichendorff’s At Sunset offered a complementary, earthy glow, with Alder smiling through the evocative postlude. She is a singing actress of immense talent, never less than delightful here.

Lieder singing is not normally associated with countertenors. Iestyn Davies is bidding to change all that. Why not? He appeared for Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin looking the part, in a Bohemian collarless jacket, as if ready for a ramble.

His wide range is a decided asset in this music. He also preferred the straight-line focus that we might expect in a Dowland lute-song to the relaxed tone more familiar in this music. Sometimes these two sorts of resonance appeared side by side in the same song.

After a vocally insistent Halt!, for example, with the piano depicting a particularly angry stream, Davies’s delivery in Thanksgiving To The Brook veered back and forth between the two. The little dramatic scena that was After Work made its successor The Inquisitive One all the more plaintive by comparison.

Three of the central songs needed to be a touch broader: Impatience, so that the refrain “Yours is my heart” might gain in importance; Mine!, with its angry instructions to nature, which were all but garbled, although composure was regained in Pause and To Accompany The Lute’s Green Ribbon, which was excessively impatient. But the huntsman galloped impressively and the jealousy and pride he provoked was properly emotional.

Davies showed his ability to turn a phrase neatly in The Beloved Colour and he made a lovely lament of Withered Flowers. The final exchanges with the brook were just right, prayerful on one side, friendly and reassuring on the other.

Both singer and pianist were quite assertive in their approach throughout, so that Schubert’s natural emphasis was not always allowed to speak for itself. But there was no denying their depth of feeling, which was impressive.

The up-and-coming singers heard by way of introduction to the three stars above all acquitted themselves admirably. Harriet Burns was a model of composure and confidence in Schubert’s settings of Ellen’s three songs from Scott’s Lady Of The Lake, D.837-9.

Her injunctions to warrior and huntsman to rest from their labours reached their target at once – no mean feat after months of lockdown – and were warm-hearted without sentimentality. The familiar Ave Maria came up fresh but prayerful, phrased smoothly and easily.

Benson Wilson opened nobly with Howells’s King David, his baritone finding a glorious legato, with only marginal loss of resonance in his sotto voce. Three songs from Finzi’s Shakespeare cycle, Let Us Garlands Bring, had an idiomatic feel, helped by excellent diction. It Was A Lover And His Lass was especially jaunty. And there were fireworks in a setting of the Maori haka, reflecting Wilson’s Polynesian roots.

After a poised account of Liszt’s Oh, Quand Je Dors, Nardus Williams returned us to Lieder with two Brahms settings. A gentleMaiden’s Song (Op 107 No 5), which appropriately speaks of isolation, was well balanced by a buoyant My Love Is Green. She revealed the power of her soprano in Wolf’s setting of Do You Know The Country?, which was notably forthright.

Leeds Lieder is to be congratulated for persevering with these recitals under extremely difficult conditions and for mounting events of such quality. Let us hope that normal service may be resumed next April. Fortune favours the brave.

Review by Martin Dreyer

Review: Steven Isserlis and Connie Shih, Leeds Town Hall, October 27

Steven Isserlis: “Infinitely elegiac encore that seemed to crystallize these sad times”

THE floodgates are beginning to open and performers of stature are returning to our concert halls – those that remain open, that is.

Steven Isserlis brought his cello and his regular pianist, Canadian-born Connie Shih, to become the latest in LeedsTown Hall’s Artists’ Choice chamber music series. Their programme was French or French-inspired, the thrilling exception being Adès’s Lieux retrouvés (Rediscovered Places) of 2009.

The original last movement of Saint-Saëns’s First Cello Sonata of 1872 is not the one normally heard today. He replaced it at the instigation of his mother, who possibly found its themes hard to discern. It still made an energetic opener. A page-turning error near the end (by Isserlis) brought it to a brief halt, but he resumed with redoubled fury. No-one could have minded.

The four Adès sketches contrast aspects of nature – water, mountain, fields – in the first three, with a frantic cityscape at the close. The smoothly flowing waters gradually took on more challenging currents, with heightened cross-rhythms. The mountain proved an arduous ascent to an oxygen-free summit, followed by what sounded like a sudden, disastrous return to base (denied by the composer).

The sweet repose and gently leaping lyricism evoking open fields disappeared into the stratosphere. It was only in the finale – described by the composer as a “cancan macabre” – that we had a moto perpetuo of energetic turbulence, taking both players to their limits. These paintings are not pastels, but brilliantly vivid in their detail. The duo took up the challenge with riveting conviction.

Lullabies by Chaminade and Fauré provided a welcome antidote; they were tenderly delivered. Fireworks returned with Franck’s sonata, originally written (1886) for the violin but here in an authorised transcription by cellist Jules Delsart, published two years later.

Since the piano part remains unchanged, it needs to be handled with care since the lower-voiced cello can easily be swamped. Shih pushed Isserlis hard in the finale, where he tossed his tousled mane without great effect on the balance between the two.

No matter: there was plenty to savour elsewhere, notably in his rich, yearning tone in the second movement and the rambling Fantasia that followed.

Duparc’s only foray into chamber music was a cello sonata, written at the age of 19. Its Lento movement made an infinitely elegiac encore that seemed to crystallize these sad times.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Brass in Leeds…but brassed off in York

Conductor Simon Wright

REVIEW: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Brass (and other thoughts), Leeds Town Hall, October 24

TWELVE heroes from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – ten brass players and two percussionists – travelled to Leeds on Saturday to play before an audience of around five dozen.

Simon Wright conducted them in a stimulating mixed bag of music from the last 130 years, plus an early interjection from Giovanni Gabrieli.

Harmless though this may sound, the event was hugely significant. Locally based groups, notably from Opera North, have been appearing at the Town Hall since late August. But this was the first time that a professional ensemble from further afield had appeared there since lockdown.

Later this week, there will be two lunchtime events and three evening lieder recitals, all given by musicians of international standing. And that’s just on the classical side. So, it can be done, all within the regulations: distanced seating, masks worn by the audience, no interval or refreshments. But these are small privations compared to the thrill of live music returning. Leeds Playhouse has been equally adventurous.

In other cities, the silence continues to be deafening. Take York, for example, normally a bastion of classical performance. The Minster, the Barbican, University of York’s Central Hall, all are large venues well suited to music and easily adaptable to the new conditions.

Smaller but equally adaptable is the National Centre for Early Music and the university’s Lyons Concert Hall. All remain resolutely shut. Why? Hasn’t government (our) money been made available to keep such venues open?

Back to the brass. They opened with an ingenious arrangement of Elgar’s Cockaigne (In London Town) by one of their own, trombonist Matthew Knight. Given its complexity, it was a surprising choice as opener and took a while to settle.

But the main theme emerged triumphant on the trombones just in time for the accelerando towards the close. With the Town Hall so empty, and therefore even more resonant than usual, Gabrieli’s Canzon on the seventh tone had a regal clarity, comparable surely to St Mark’s Venice itself, as the two quartets bounced off another; it might have made a better curtain-raiser.

Imogen Holst’s Leiston Suite (1967) delivered five neatly concentrated miniatures, including a sparkling fanfare, a balletic jig and several flashes of her father’s spare harmony, all tastefully interwoven.

Eric Crees’ skilful arrangements of three Spanish dances by Granados were enchantingly idiomatic, rays of mediterranean sunshine. The colours in Duke Ellington’s bluesy Chelsea Bridge were more muted.

Hartlepool-born Jim Parker’s name may not be on everyone’s lips, but most of us have heard his music through his soundtracks for Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War, Moll Flanders and any number of films. Why he has four BAFTAS to his name became clear in A Londoner In New York (1987), five attractive cameos of the city’s buzz, including steam engines at Grand Central, a romantic walk in Central Park, and the can-can chorus line at Radio City.

London came to Leeds here and we may all be grateful for the glimpse of normality.

Review by Martin Dreyer

Slung Low turn another page with dystopian short film The Good Book streaming online from tomorrow

Riana Duce as Avalon and Angus Imrie as Geraint in a scene from The Good Book, streaming online from tomorrow

PIONEERING Leeds theatre company Slung Low will premiere their new short film The Good Book from 12 noon tomorrow, streaming online for free.

Set in a future Leeds, James Phillips’s story depicts a society divided between loyalists of the powerful Queen Bear and radical followers of Galahad.

Avalon, played by Riana Duce, is a young woman desperate not to take sides, but as civil war begins, she must undertake a dangerous mission to rescue a precious relic from destruction.

Riana, from Bradford, is joined in the cast of invited actors by Angus Imrie, from Fleabag, Emma and The Archers, Katie Eldred and more than 100 members of the Holbeck community.

Directed by Sheffield filmmaker Brett Chapman, filming took place in late-January at Slung Low’s base, The Holbeck Social Club and at Holbeck Cemetery, Leeds Central Library and Leeds Town Hall.

Slung Low cast members Riana Duce and Angus Imrie in a scene from The Good Book in Holbeck Cemetery

The Good Book forms the first production for the newly formed Leeds People’s Theatre, created by producers Slung Low with support of Leeds 2023, the city’s upcoming international cultural festival, Leeds City Council and the Arts Council.

The film continues writer James Phillips’s future dystopia, a series that began with The White Whale at Leeds Dock in 2013, followed by Camelot, a Slung Low and Sheffield Theatres outdoor co-production in 2015.

Next came Flood, the epic centrepiece of Hull, UK City of Culture 2017’s performance programme that also featured on the BBC.

Project number four represents a departure for Slung Low: the film The Good Book, at once self-contained but also drawing on the world of Camelot.

“I think the plan was to launch it in Leeds and do a little festival run, but after the Coronavirus lockdown it seemed better and more useful to put it out there now online,” says James.

Katie Eldred , centre, as Vivian in The Good Book

“We were lucky that we got the filming done in the last two and a half weeks of January, and the penultimate day was ‘Brexit Day’. Not that long ago, but that now seems a world of somewhat different concerns.”

The Good Book finds Phillips working once more with Slung Low artistic director and executive producer Alan Lane. “The work Alan and I do together is different to the other work Slung Low does,” says James.

“For pieces like Flood, a full-blown epic for Hull’s City of Culture year, it’s a ‘future present’ that we create that allows us to play with big political ideas and look at things in a slightly different way.

“Camelot was done with a massive cast of 127 on Sheffield’s streets in 2015, and again it was a prescient piece where I became obsessed with the thought of a dangerous nostalgia, that need to look back to look forward, which has caused so many problems.

“That play was about a young girl who saw visions of the future of Arthurian Britain, and then ten years later, people come along who have taken those visions seriously but are utterly more dangerous. This re-birth of ‘purity’ becomes so destructive that a civil war starts.”

Angus Imrie as Geraint in Leeds Central Library in The Good Book

James continues: “This was just before Trump’s presidency, Brexit and the Corbyn revolution, so something was in the air. Like ISIS being a nostalgic organisation looking back to something that never existed…and I wondered about Christian fundamentalism too.”

The Good Book is set ten years into that new world, now in Holbeck, as a counter-revolution starts in Leeds, whereas Camelot was set and made in Sheffield.

The switch of location was a “very logical step”, says James: “When I wanted to make this film, it was good to tie it in with the idea that Leeds was the last place that Sheffield would want a counter-revolution to start, and whereas Camelot was about heroes, this story is about a small revolution.”

In The Good Book, an old man caught between two opposing factions gives a young girl a piece of paper with a reference number for a book at Leeds Library. “She has to decide whether to risk herself to save the book, and she wonders what meaning the book might have,” says James.

Is “The Good Book” the Bible? “No. It’s something more than anything to do with what’s going on in the world now,” says James.

Riana Duce as Avalon in The Good Book

A short film may suggest a more intimate work than Camelot, but “it is and it isn’t more intimate”, the writer says. “I made the decision to push the envelope, so it’s not a typical short film. It has a big cast of 100, so technically it’s too long for a ‘short film’.

“At the end, there’s a big riot involving 90 people, and we had lots of recruits wanting to do that scene!”

How does James expect viewers to react to The Good Book? “Hopefully they will be surprised. It’s different. I’ve done screen things before, like the Flood project having a short film and a piece for the BBC, but The Good Book was always, deliberately, conceived to be a short film,” he says.

“I think we’re on to a good thing with this film, so it would be great to do more of them.”

Slung Low’s The Good Book will be available to stream online for free from 12 noon tomorrow (May 1) at www.slunglow.org/TGB

Slung Low’s film poster for The Good Book

Did you know?

LEEDS People’s Theatre has been created by Slung Low as a dedicated division for large-scale professional arts projects with communities in Leeds at the heart of them.

This involves the community working in tandem with professional artists and creative teams, offering an opportunity to learn, gain more experience or simply be part of a community. 

The Good Book will be the first of several projects Slung Low are planning for Leeds People’s Theatre. Watch this space.