REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Opera North’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Aleko, Leeds Grand Theatre, February 15

Robert Hayward as Alfio in Opera North’s Cavalleria Rusticana: “Some of the finest singing he has ever delivered on this stage”. Picture: Tristram Kenton

WITH his distraught features spread across both covers of the programme in close-up, there was no doubting who was to be the anti-hero of this double bill.

Robert Hayward has made a speciality of portraying twisted psychotics – his Scarpia comes straight to mind – so the pistol-packing combination of Alfio in Mascagni’s melodrama with the title role in Rakhmaninov’s graduation exercise Aleko was right up his street.

In both, jealousy prompts his character to shoot dead the tenor, in this case the luckless Andrés Presno. Hayward rose to the occasion with some of the finest singing he has ever delivered on this stage.

Karolina Sofulak had returned to revive her 2017 production of Cavalleria Rusticana while tackling the company’s first look at Aleko. Rakhmaninov completed the latter in 1892, a mere two years after the Mascagni had caused a sensation.

Sofulak was understandably at pains to point out the parallels between the two. In close association with her designers, Charles Edwards (sets and lighting) and Gabrielle Dalton (costumes), she put Cavalleria Rusticana first, the reverse of the usual order with these two pieces.

Supplanting the sunshine and lemon blossom of Sicily with the darker but equally restrictive society of Communist Poland in the 1970s, she then – inspired by Pushkin’s poem The Gypsies on which the libretto is based – conceived Aleko as taking place in a 1990s post-hippie commune, such as Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen.

Helen Évora as Lola and Andrés Presno as Turiddu in Opera North’s Cavalleria Rusticana. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Here ‘Al’, who has by now changed the latter half of his name, is trying to liberate himself from the misdemeanours of his youth as Alfio. But his fate lies within his own dark heart, and he is unable to shake it off. It was an ingenious idea. It also put into much better perspective her staging of the Mascagni, which had not made much sense previously alongside Trial By Jury.

None of this would have worked without the conviction of Hayward. He moved convincingly from being a small-town, repressed Alfio, short of one or two marbles judging by his hesitant steps and inability to control his emotions, to a supposedly wiser, more worldly Aleko, whose anger still lay only just below the surface.

As Alfio, he was seen wringing his bloodstained hands at the end of the Mascagni. He was still wringing his hands, albeit now no longer gory, when he became Aleko. Shortly afterwards, he fondly cradled the gun he had used to shoot Turiddù (while a passenger in his beaten-up taxi), before secreting it in his suitcase.

Edwards’s set for Cavalleria Rusticana was bleak, in keeping with the deprivations of the villagers, queuing at Lucia’s counter for meagre supplies which soon ran out. It was still dominated by a huge wooden cross against which Turiddù’s outstretched arms presaged his imminent demise.

Presno’s fine tenor was almost too resonant for the role, given that his attacks were relentlessly fierce, making every note sound higher than it really was. But his depiction of emotional immaturity was telling enough.

Elin Pritchard’s Zemfira in Opera North’s Aleko. Picture: Tristram Kenton

He was immensely helped by Giselle Allen’s marvellously vicious Santuzza, spitting tacks like hell-fire. Anne-Marie Owens brought all her authority to bear on Lucia, and Helen Évora’s Lola was exactly the kind of girl-next-door ingénue to catch her lover’s eye.

The set for Aleko was a total contrast, built around a flashy bar where the community seemed to be perpetually drinking or dancing (very appealingly to Tim Claydon’s choreography).

Rakhmaninov’s score has more than a suggestion of Middle Eastern flavour, especially at the start, right out of the Rimsky-Korsakov playbook. Antony Hermus latched onto this, so that his orchestra underlined the other-worldliness of the setting. Elsewhere he was quick to lend extra drama to an already highly charged atmosphere.

Aleko moves forward in a series of tableaux rather than unfolding continuously, which makes the director’s task tough. But Sofulak’s cinematic style, apparently inspired by Kieślowski, was rarely less than riveting.

Hayward’s determined baritone stole the show, with Elin Pritchard’s luscious-toned Zemfira as his faithless wife. It was a clever conceit to have Lola reappear in a vision to remind Aleko of his earlier life. Presno’s Lover had less to do here and remained much in the Turiddù mould.

Matthew Stiff as Zemfira’s father delivered a pleasing seen-it-all-before aria. The chorus relished their opportunities, especially in Aleko, while Hermus kept his orchestra at a high level of intensity. But Hayward was the true key to the evening’s success.

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Opera North in Albert Herring, Howard Assembly Room, Leeds

Dafydd Jones as Albert Herring in Opera North’s Albert Herring. Picture: Tom Arber

FOR the first show of Laura Canning’s reign as general director, Opera North returned to Giles Havergal’s successful production of 2013, here revived by Elaine Tyler-Hall.

As chamber-comedy, Albert Herring certainly benefited from the relative intimacy of the Howard Room, with the audience aligned three-deep on its long sides, facing inwards, and the action confined to the strip between. The orchestra was where the stage platform would normally be.

The production held fast to Havergal’s insistence that Loxford’s village stereotypes should be clearly differentiated but delivered a few carefully calculated extras. The opening scene was much enlivened by a parade of comely candidates for May Queen, all of whom looked extremely suitable but had to retreat dolefully for their alleged misdemeanours. There was a little caper by the judging panel when Lady Billows acquiesced in the choice of Albert.

Dafydd Jones, who has been a Leeds Lieder Young Artist, made his company debut in the title role with considerable aplomb, graduating smoothly from downtrodden drip to born-again bravado. His Act 2 solos as he fantasised about a better life were excellently paced.

Katie Bray as Nancy and Dominic Sedgwick as Sid in Opera North’s Albert Herring. Picture:Tom Arber

He was well supported by Dominic Sedgwick’s breezy Sid, whose aria was nicely nuanced, and Katie Bray’s assured and engaging Nancy; their love-duet was a breath of fresh air in this stuffy village.

Judith Howarth was in fine fettle as Lady Billows, superbly bolstered by Heather Shipp’s Florence Pike, who was if anything even more waspish: a formidable duo. William Dazeley, the only holdover from the original cast, was an avuncular vicar, wringing his hands in diffidence, matched in character-acting by Paul Nilon’s out-of-his-depth mayor.

Amy Freston’s twittery schoolmarm and Richard Mosley-Evans’s blustery local copper added further fuel to the farce. There was always the feeling that Claire Pascoe’s severe Mrs Herring meant well, a feather in her cap.

 The threnody over Albert’s casket-to-be, which was overlaid by his tye-marked jacket, was beautifully delivered, which made Albert’s reincarnation all the more effective.

Rosa Sparks as Emmie, left, Willow Bell as Cis and Oliver Mason as Harry in Opera North’s Albert Herring. Picture: Tom Arber

There was a strong sense of a generation gap between the young and old in this village, enhanced by the three children, who were ably led by Rosa Sparks as Emmie, a promising debutante here.

 Willow Bell as Cissie and Oliver Mason as Harold were her lively underlings, all encouraged to sing properly rather than pseudo-shout. Their alternates were Lucy Eatock and Dougie Sadgrove; all four are members of the company’s Children’s Chorus. They broke into dance at the slightest excuse (movement director Tim Claydon) which added to the fun.

Vital to the success of the whole evening was the stylish contribution by Garry Walker’s orchestra, whose interludes were potently atmospheric, notably in Act 2.

Diction was not always as clean as it might have been, and some of the voices strayed into territory too forceful for this arena, but those were minor misgivings in the face of Tyler-Hall’s admirable sense of ensemble. This site-specific production could not tour, though sold out weeks in advance. It will, however, be streamed on Operavision later this year.

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Opera North in La Rondine, on tour until Nov 17

Galina Averina (third from left) as Magda and Elgan Llŷr Thomas (seated right) as Prunier in Opera North’s La Rondine. Picture: Tristram Kenton

IN a time of financial stringency, you would not automatically think of one of Puccini’s least-popular operas as compelling box office.

Unless of course you were willing to take the risks that Opera North has become famous for and could find a way to fit it into your Green Season, redeploying old sets and costumes and considering how to save the planet while also saving money.

Nor would La Rondine (The Swallow) spring easily to most minds as a parting gesture: it marks general director Richard Mantle’s farewell to the company he joined in 1994, the very year that Opera North staged its first production of the work (which also happens to be one of his ‘Top Ten’ operas). Nothing ventured, nothing gained has surely been Mantle’s motto – and it has worked out admirably.

Thus James Hurley’s new production has a dual task: first to convince that La Rondine needs to be seen in Leeds again and, if so, that it deserves to supplant Francesca Zambello’s successful 1994 effort, which enjoyed two revivals.

Leslie Travers’s set makes use of two multi-purpose steel fabrications on wheels, stretching over two storeys. Kept close together they serve to outline Magda’s salon; they are opened up to accommodate the festivities chez Bullier, with a gigantic vase of flowers between. The remaining atmosphere is left to the canny lighting of Paule Constable and Ben Pickersgill, notably in Act 3, where you can almost smell the Mediterranean beneath the blue sky.

Three of the five principals are making their company debuts, which adds to the fun. Galina Averina is one, an enigmatic Magda singing with considerable charm that is never quite matched by her appearance.

While one accepts that she needs to blend in with the crowd at Bullier’s, her homely dress makes her stand out for the wrong reason, nor does her 1920s’ wig do her any favours. You even have to wonder what it is that so allures Ruggero: how is it that someone so attractive in her biography image can have been made to look so ordinary?

Sébastien Guèze’s Ruggero is ideal as the provincial innocent, clearly out of his depth in matters amatory, but his tenor is too often less than magnetic. It is not tight so much as lacking that extra flair which more carefree resonance might provide. Ultimately one has to ask what they really see in each other.

The contrast with the secondary lovers is stark. Claire Lees is marvellously flighty as Lisette, the perfect soubrette, thoroughly enjoying herself in her coloratura and catching the eye on her every appearance. There is no mistaking the chemistry between her and Elgan Llŷr Thomas’s gallant bounder Prunier, whose tenor carries the necessary touch of steel.

Philip Smith makes the most of his acquiescent Rambaldo, to the point where one has to feel he is surely the better bet for Magda in the long run. Opera cannot work like that, of course.

Act 2 is the superb centrepiece of the evening. Here Hurley exercises total control over the comings and goings of the chorus, each with clearly defined roles. But none oversteps the mark, so that attention is never diverted from the principals, a tricky tightrope.

Gabrielle Dalton’s costumes come into their own here, but equally effective is Lauren Poulton’s buoyant choreography, which is further enlivened by a quartet of apache dancers.

Kerem Hasan’s orchestra is consistently persuasive, especially in the slower waltzes, keeping a creamy momentum through Puccini’s insistent tempo changes. It is a delight to be able to take refuge in the pit whenever the action above is less than convincing.

Should Zambello have been recycled? It is a close shave, but the overall achievement justifies this new approach.

Review by Martin Dreyer

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 York Guildhall Orchestra, York Barbican, Oct 14

David Greed: Former Orchestra of Opera North leader and York Guildhall Orchestra guest soloist for Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Picture: Opera North

THERE was a distinct start-of-term feeling about this fixture, in which Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and Elgar’s First Symphony were preceded by a Dvorak concert overture.

It was refreshing to see several new, youthful faces in the orchestra, which was conducted by its musical director Simon Wright. But the advent of new blood, however welcome, inevitably carries an element of adjustment as compensation is made for retirees and incomers find their feet.

This may help to explain the tentative air about Dvorak’s In Nature’s Realm, where the strings initially lacked focus. But the composer’s orchestration increasingly gained in colour and the work finished confidently.

David Greed retired last summer after a mighty 44 years as leader of the Orchestra of Opera North, but thankfully has resisted reaching for the carpet slippers, continuing to freelance widely. As soloist in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, he made an immediate impression with the sweetness of his upper range.

There was a rallentando into the second theme and an even bigger one before the cadenza, where he really let the music breathe rather than dazzle with mere virtuosity. The slow movement was an intimate affair at first, which made for a bigger contrast when the agitated central section arrived. When the opening returned, Greed was back to sharing quiet confidences with his audience, allowing us to wallow in Mendelssohn’s luscious melody.

David Greed: “Let the music breathe rather than dazzle with mere virtuosity”. Picture: Opera North

The bridge passage into the final rondo was beautifully elongated, keeping us tantalised with expectation. When the Allegro at last arrived it had all the flair and brilliance that the score implies, with Wright maintaining a strongly rhythmic backing to the soloist’s rapid figurations.

The coda was even more dazzling. But Greed was always at the service of the music rather than imposing his personality upon it showily, a refreshing and ultimately satisfying approach.

Elgar’s Symphony No 1 in A flat carries his favourite marking of nobilmente over its motto theme, but apart from the brass here, it was less than noble at first. But there was plenty of vivacity in the Allegro when it came and a nicely contrasting hush with the recall of its opening. What really impressed was the neatly controlled inner detail. Brass provided fire whenever needed.

The scherzo was exciting right from the start, with real precision from the strings and no let-up on the journey into the march-like second theme. Much tender phrasing infused the slow movement, particularly in the outer strings; there was an achingly elegiac feel to its closing pages.

Wright handled the transition into the last movement’s Allegro beautifully, where the main statement was superbly bold. The motto theme emerged more strongly than ever, symbolising the orchestra’s gradual resurgence throughout the evening. Things are shaping up nicely, not only for this season but well beyond.

Review by Martin Dreyer

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

Henry Waddington as Falstaff and Louise Winter as Mistress Quickly in Opera North’s Falstaff. All pictures: Richard H Smith

IT is exactly 400 years since the publication of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s complete works, which included The Merry Wives Of Windsor. Sir John Falstaff is its principal character, but his name does not appear in the title.

Olivia Fuchs must surely have noticed this in her new production of Verdi’s comedy, which deservedly gives plentiful attention to the wives.

Here it is the opening salvo in Opera North’s Green Season, in which its three productions are sharing scenic elements, with all sets and costumes sourced from current stock and previous productions or bought second-hand.

Kate Royal as Alice Ford, Louise Winter as Mistress Quickly, Helen Évora as Meg Page and Isabelle Peters as Nannetta

Principal among the purchases is a weathered, open-sided 1970s caravan, which serves as Falstaff’s HQ for his intrigues against the bourgeois ladies of Windsor. Down on his uppers and sporting braces and shorts over his sweaty T-shirt, he is the epitome of trailer trash. Thus the need for period costumes is neatly side-stepped, while bringing the whole comedy much nearer home: surely a victory for both ecology and economy.

But the engine-room of this sparkling evening is Garry Walker’s orchestra. Anyone who can wrest their attention away from the hi-jinks on stage will find it hard to keep a smile off their face at what is going on in the pit.

If there is more stress on the first word of commedia lirica than on the second, it is entirely in keeping with Fuchs’s vision. For humour underlies Walker’s every gesture. It is not just that his orchestra is light on its toes, it is attuned to the finest detail of Verdi’s orchestration: the dancing woodwinds, the taut trills, the caustic brass, all are calculated to enhance the text, in this case Amanda Holden’s wise and witty translation, also seen in side-titles.

Colin Judson as Bardolph, Paul Nilon as Dr Caius, Dean Robinson as Pistol, Richard Burkhard as Ford and Egor Zhuravskii as Fenton

The moment that encapsulates every aspect of the show is when Falstaff breaks into a gleeful caper on exclaiming “Alice is mine!”. Here laughter, choreography, song, orchestra are one, a magical moment.

Rarely have instruments sounded so comical, as Verdi – letting his hair down in his 80th year – throws caution to the winds. Walker deserves gratitude for reminding us of this so vividly, and with immaculate pacing into the bargain.

While we laugh at this Falstaff, we never lose sympathy for him. As he lumbers out with his ghetto blaster in Act 2, preparing for conquest, or wanders expectantly into the wood in Act 3, Henry Waddington’s corpulent blunderer is never an object of mere derision.  So that when he changes his tune at the finale and joins in the general rejoicing, it rings true – as if we have been watching a play within a play.

Tennis courting: Egor Zhuravskii as Fenton and Isabelle Peters as Nannetta

Waddington’s baritone is in excellent trim, relishing the arioso nuances of the role with exemplary diction. He has made many memorable appearances with this company, but this is surely his finest hour in Leeds.

He is admirably matched by Kate Royal’s Mistress Alice, not least through her comic timing in dialogue. But her soprano is wonderfully flexible too. As her husband Ford, James Davies stepped out of the chorus on this occasion to replace the indisposed Richard Burkhard and did so with distinction. He warmed into the role smoothly and resonantly, as if he had always been part of the front line – and deserved the cast applause at the final curtain.

There is no lack of quality in the lesser roles. Helen Évora’s charm ensures she makes the most of Mistress Meg and Louise Winter’s seen-it-all-before Mistress Quickly is a perfect piece of casting.

Kate Royal as Alice Ford and Henry Waddington as Falstaff

As the only “serious” lovers, Nannetta and Fenton, Isabelle Peters and Egor Zhuravskii are well blended, she flighty and innocent, he eager in his high tessitura, reminiscent indeed of Paul Nilon in his younger days – who here brings a cutting edge to Doctor Caius. Colin Judson and Dean Robinson offer a neat combination of bafflement and bravado as Bardolph and Pistol. The chorus is as disciplined as ever.

It is hard to judge just how green this production is. Suffice to say that the ‘tree’ of real antlers in Act 3, shed naturally by the herd at Harewood House, is an impressive assemblage. Nature will provide. But it is a tribute not only to Fuchs, but also to Leslie Travers’ set and Gabrielle Dalton’s costumes that the evening coheres so beautifully despite the environmental economies. Green is not necessarily mean.

Further performances in Leeds until October 25, then on tour until November 18. Leeds box office: 0113 243 0808 or leedsheritagetheatres.com.

Review by Martin Dreyer, October 5

Richard Burkhard as Ford, Henry Waddington as Falstaff and Kate Royal as Alice Ford with members of the Chorus of Opera North and a ‘tree’ of antlers, shed naturally by the Harewood House deer herd

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Opera North in Les Pȇcheurs de Perles, Leeds Grand Theatre, May 16

Opera North in The Pearl Fishers (Les Pȇcheurs de Perles). Picture: James Glossop

IT has been well over 30 years since Opera North looked at Bizet’s youthful stab at orientalism, The Pearl Fishers. But in that time orientalism has acquired some of the negative taints of colonialism, with claims made in the programme that Bizet’s attempts at exoticism sound dissonant to modern ears because he was not properly acquainted with Asian music.

It is doubtful if that thought would have even flitted into the minds of the Leeds – or any other –audience. Nowhere is credence given to the idea that the composer was not trying to be authentic, merely conjuring atmosphere as understood in his own day and still largely so now.

The mere fact that there is felt to be a need for such an apologia is an instant red flag that there might be a ‘concept’ lurking. Productions should be able to speak for themselves.

At this time of year, the company has customarily offered a concert staging in Leeds Town Hall. With that venue undergoing major refurbishment, a full staging at home base was the obvious fall-back, but all the touring dates are due to be only concert performances.

This is relevant since what we get is a very static production from Matthew Eberhardt, with little hint of context in Joanna Parker’s costumes.

Principals apart, it is hard to tell whether the chorus are supposed to be fisher-folk or Brahmins, since they are clad in black suits and dresses, very much like westerners. They are even to be found seated in chairs along the edges of the stage. So it is very close to a concert performance.

The only costume to make any impact is Nourabad’s rather jumbled salt-caked coat-tails, more like the Old Man of the Sea than a high priest.

Parker’s set is dominated by a central totem of tangled fishing ropes stretching up the ceiling. This appears to serve for an altar and is twice partially climbed by Leïla. Otherwise, the stage is littered with enlarged pearls of various sizes up to two metres in diameter. These mainly vanish in Act 3, allowing the chorus easier passage, though some larger ones are to be seen hanging in nets overhead.

Peter Mumford’s lighting is predominantly gloomy, most of the light coming from slender on-stage spots, which enliven the action but regularly leave faces in partial shadow. There is a continual video backdrop of waves in moonlight co-designed by him and Parker; it does not change even when the chorus sing of blue skies and calm sea. But we could have been anywhere, Mexico (as originally intended), Ceylon – or even Lowestoft.

There are compensations in the music. Quirijn de Lang, a welcome and regular visitor here, has rarely sounded as resonant as he does as Zurga, right from the start. He commands the stage. But he reins back for the big duet with Nico Darmanin’s Nadir, who had not quite reached full throttle at that point on this opening night. Nadir’s later anger is convincing enough and he partners Leïla sensitively.

Sophia Theodorides, making her house debut, is a confident Leïla, her ornamentation clear and her emotions tangible. Joseph Creswell makes a stentorian Nourabad, a powerful presence.

The chorus is certainly forceful, if not quite up to its usual blend. Matthew Kofi Waldren keeps them and his orchestra attentive, and alive to the nuances of Bizet’s orchestration. But this production would have been better billed as a concert staging. What we get is a half-way house that will have pleased few.

Review by Martin Dreyer

Further Leeds performances on May 25, 27, 31 & June 2, then touring (concert performances) to Manchester, Gateshead, Hull City Hall (June 24, 7pm)and Nottingham until July 1. www.operanorth.co.uk. Leeds box office: leedsheritagetheatres.com; Hull, hulltheatres.co.uk

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Opera North in Requiem: Journeys Of The Soul, Leeds Grand Theatre, May 30

Emile Petersen, Aaron Chaplin and Rian Jansen with tenor soloist Mongezi Mosoaka in Mozart’s Requiem. Picture: Richard H Smith

IT’S an ill wind…some good may have come out of Covid. Music of mourning requires an outcome for the living: a vision of the hereafter, perhaps, but certainly closure or catharsis. Mozart’s Requiem and Neo Muyanga’s After Tears: After A Requiem combines the talents of Opera North and fellow Leeds company Phoenix Dance Theatre with South Africa’s Jazzart Dance Theatre and Cape Town Opera.

The vital link between the two is Dane Hurst, who has links with both dance companies; he choreographs and directs this double bill, inspired by personal loss during the pandemic.

Dance was always a feature of early Christian worship and remains so in less inhibited cultures than our own, so the idea of a balletic requiem is perhaps not as radical as it may at first seem.

The ‘After Tears’ is a relatively new tradition espoused by younger generations in South African townships and equates somewhat to a wake, whereby the blues of mourning are submerged in loud, dance music.

Simplistically, South African composer Muyanga’s new response piece picks up where Mozart leaves off. Hurst’s choreography keeps closely to the music. In the Mozart, it is immediately engrossing, not least because the soloists and chorus are constantly in physical touch with the dancers, offering sympathy and consolation.

The Dies Irae sees a frenetic outpouring from both chorus and dancers, the latter writhing in agonies of what appears to be self-recrimination. In contrast, for example, the Benedictus offers cool balm to the troubled.

Dancers from Phoenix Dance Theatre and Jazzart Dance Theatre with the Chorus of Opera North
in Opera North’s production of Neo Muyanga’s
After Tears: After A Requiem. Picture: Tristram Kenton


The sheer energy of the dancing is a marvel, quite stunning. It is invigorated by a chorus that is equally on fire; the two forces clearly inspire one another.

Underpinning them is Garry Walker’s orchestra, ablaze with rhythmic fervour that can only be an inspiration to the dancers. The solo quartet – Ellie Laugharne, Ann Taylor, Mongezi Mosoaka and Simon Shibambu – blend superbly but are individually distinctive when need be. Shibambu’s stentorian bass is ideal in the Tuba Mirum.

Joanna Parker’s thin black wooden shards remain dangling overhead for After Tears, where Muyanga’s score initially lays emphasis on percussive effects. His melodic instincts are relatively subdued and tend towards minimalism as the piece progresses.

Between two main sections is a moment of ritual reflection involving a priestly figure who chants in African dialect and invokes the spirit of Fire. This is a welcome oasis of calm amid otherwise frantic activity, in which the 16 dancers now shriek with joy.

There is a sense in which the ritual aspect of this dancing evokes the atmosphere of Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring, even though the music is less challenging. But the evening also offers an electrifying opportunity to re-evaluate our attitudes to death and mourning and discover the silver lining they canoffer. As an example of cross-cultural fertilisation, it tops the charts.

Review by Martin Dreyer

The final performance of Requiem: Journeys Of The Soul at Leeds Grand Theatre are on Saturday (3/6/2023) at 7pm and Sunday (4/6/2023) at 2.30pm. The production was co-commissioned by Leeds 2023 Year of Culture. Box office: 0113 243 0808 or leedsheritagetheatres.com

A scene from After Tears

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Elizabeth Llewellyn & Simon Lepper, Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, March 28

Elizabeth Llewellyn: Bringing her radiant soprano to more intimate surroundings

HARD on the heels of her triumphant Opera North run in the title role of Ariadne auf Naxos, Elizabeth Llewellyn brought her radiant soprano to more intimate surroundings in a recital celebrating the late Dr Keith Howard, the most generous benefactor in Opera North’s history. Simon Lepper’s piano was her deft partner.

Her programme was an eclectic mix of Verdi and Puccini songs that played to her operatic strengths, lieder of Brahms and Strauss, and songs by two English composers, Coleridge-Taylor and Stanford.

Llewellyn’s debut recording, Heart And Hereafter in 2021, was devoted to songs by Coleridge-Taylor, eight of which she offered here, opening each half of the evening with them. She clearly has a special feel for this music. The best of three from 1896 was a setting of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet Tears, an intimate view of grief.

Even more affecting were four settings of Christina Rossetti from Sorrow Songs, Op 57 (1904), with a passionate “Let me be” in Oh What Comes Over The Sea?.

There is often a touch of Brahms in the music of Stanford, Coleridge-Taylor’s teacher, even when he is trying to be Irish, as in A Sheaf Of Songs From Leinster. Llewellyn gave a spirited account of The Bold Unbiddable Child. In three lieder by Brahms himself, she tried to keep her tone intimate and succeeded best with Auf dem Kirchhofe (In The churchyard), with its telling rhymes, ‘Gewesen’ (deceased) and ‘Genesen’ (released).

She was wise to keep her Italian songs and her Strauss to the end of each half: they allowed her to open out her naturally rich tone. She found it easy to convey the adoration of Du Meines Herzens Krönelein (You My Heart’s Little Crown) and the rapture of the evergreen Ständchen (Serenade). They also allowed Lepper to break out more and he took full advantage of Strauss’s lush accompaniments, highlighting pianistic details.

Llewellyn’s Italian projection was even smoother still. The lullaby Sogno d’or (Sweet Dream, 1912) reappeared in the opera La Rondine; she covered her tone beautifully at its close. She cleverly paired it with another ‘ninna-nanna’ (lullaby), E l’uccellino, an amusing little bird. The remainder of the Puccini songs were stand-alone numbers, which rarely get a recital airing.

In three Verdi songs at the close, she really cut loose, finishing with a vivaciously carefree gypsy girl in La Zingara. As she spends more time in recital halls, she will perhaps not feel the need to fall back on operatic styles so much and she will tailor the intimate side of her tone accordingly.

She has all the charm and charisma you could ask for. For the time being, however, she will do herself – and her audiences – an immense favour by dispensing with her music stand and learning the songs as she would an operatic role. Only then will she establish that direct communication with her listeners that is so crucial to the full success of a song recital.

Review by Martin Dreyer

Elizabeth Llewellyn & Simon Lepper’s CD of songs by Coleridge-Taylor is on Orchid Classics ORC 100164.

Henry Filloux-Bennett appointed executive director in ‘pivotal moment for Opera North’

Henry Filloux-Bennett: New executive director at Opera North. Picture: Samantha Toolsie

HENRY Filloux-Bennett is leaving HOME to be the new executive director at Opera North in Leeds from May 2023.

“I’m thrilled to be joining the team at Opera North,” he says. “Having had a long connection with the company, from first seeing them at the Theatre Royal and Concert Hall in Nottingham to then working with them at The Lowry in Salford, and more recently at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield, the prospect of joining as executive director at this really exciting – but also challenging – time is one I absolutely relish.”

Filloux-Bennett, who turned 40 last month, is at present executive director and deputy chief executive officer of HOME, the arts centre, cinema, theatre and gallery complex in Manchester. Previously, he was chief executive and artistic director of the Lawrence Batley Theatre; before that, head of marketing at The Lowry; earlier, head of marketing and communications at Nottingham Playhouse.

Filloux-Bennett also has worked as a producer and general manager for organisations such as the Royal Shakespeare Company, Theatre Royal Haymarket and Bill Kenwright Ltd.

As an author and playwright, he wrote the award-winning Nigel Slater’s Toast, commissioned by The Lowry and subsequently transferred to the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, The Other Place in London, plus a UK tour.

In 2020, his stage version of What A Carve Up!, based on Jonathan Coe’s novel, was chosen as one of the Guardian’s Top 10 theatre shows and the Telegraph’s Top 50 Cultural Events of the year.

In Covid-shrouded 2021, he adapted Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray, starring Fionn Whitehead and Joanna Lumley in a digital production for Barn Theatre/Lawrence Batley Theatre that was seen in more than 70 countries.

Opera North general manager Richard Mantle, left, with new executive director Henry Filloux-Bennett. Picture: Samantha Toolsie

He then co-wrote the original screenplay Going The Distance, starring Sarah Hadland, Shobna Gulati and Matthew Kelly in a digital comedy co-produced by the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Oxford Playhouse, The Dukes, Lancaster, and Watermill Theatre, Newbury.

Opera North’s general manager, Richard Mantle, says: “I am delighted to announce that Henry Filloux-Bennett has been appointed as our new executive director, joining the company in May 2023. He brings with him a wealth of experience through his theatre career and as a writer.

“This is a pivotal moment in the history of Opera North as we develop our strategic priorities and re-build our way out of the impact of the pandemic and the current cost-of-living crisis.

“Henry will be a key part of the leadership of Opera North into the future, bringing with him significant experience of business planning, budgetary and financial forecasting, programming, stakeholder management, commercial strategies and food and beverage hospitality. I am thrilled to be able to welcome Henry to the Opera North team and look forward to our collaboration as colleagues.”

Opera North, a national opera company based in Leeds since 1977, tours opera and musical theatre to theatres and concert halls across the north of England, including regular appearances in Leeds, Greater Manchester, Newcastle/Gateshead, Nottingham and Hull.

The company’s wide-ranging education and community partnerships work brings music and performance into the lives of communities across the region.

Opera North also operates and programmes the Howard Assembly Room, a 300-seat performance venue within the Leeds Grand Theatre building that offers an eclectic programme of world music, jazz and folk, classical, talks, film screenings and family events.

Opera North’s new restaurant and bar, Kino, opened last year on New Briggate, adjacent to the Howard Assembly Room and Grand Theatre.

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Opera North’s Ariadne auf Naxos, February 18

Hanna Hipp: “Firm, intense” as Composer in Opera North’s Ariadne auf Naxos. All pictures: Richard H Smith

Ariadne auf Naxos, Opera North/Gothenburg Opera, Leeds Grand Theatre. Further performances on February 21, 24 and March 1, all at 7pm, then touring until March 24. Leeds box office: 0113 243 0808 or leedsheritagetheatres.com.

HUGO von Hofmannsthal avowedly based his libretto for Ariadne on the idea of Verwandlung, transformation.

Rodula Gaitanou’s ingenious scenario for this co-production with Gothenburg Opera, first seen there exactly five years ago, takes transformation a stage further, relocating the action from nouveau-riche Vienna in the 1910s to Fellini’s Rome of the 1950s, specifically the Cinecittà film studios.

George Souglides’s equally clever set and costumes underline the conceit by virtually duplicating the harlequinade costumes from Fellini’s 8 1⁄2.

Elizabeth Llewellyn’s Prima Donna. “Had to lie on a ten-metre high granite rock, which looked extremely uncomfortable”

The Prologue bustles with pre-cinematic activity, much of it mimed in hilarious detail behind the rantings of the Major-Domo and the Music-Master. So, we have electrician, light operator, make-up artist, painter, paparazzo and cameraman busying themselves alongside a group of sponsors – all named in the programme.

John Savournin’s no-nonsense Major-Domo rules this roost, rocking back Dean Robinson’s pleading Music-Master and Daniel Norman’s fretful Dancing-Master at every turn. Only Hanna Hipp’s firm, intense Composer offers him serious resistance, impassioned in her aria but soothed into reluctant acceptance of the new order by Zerbinetta’s attentions.

This might have been the last we would see of the Composer. But Gaitanou brings him back for the Opera, where he is a spectator throughout, even bringing realism to Zerbinetta’s emotional tug-of-love between him (her new ‘god’) and her old flame Harlequin.

Jennifer France’s flibbertigibbet of a Zerbinetta turns out to be the fulcrum around which the evening revolves. This owes much to her effervescence, but was partly caused by both the Tenor/Bacchus and the Prima Donna/Ariadne having missed the dress rehearsal for vocal reasons, although no apologies were offered on this opening night. They weathered the Prologue without distress, but for one of them (Ric Furman) the Opera proved a bridge too far.

Ric Furman as Bacchus, Elizabeth Llewellyn as Ariadne, with Amy Freston as Echo, Laura Kelly-McInroy as Dryad and Daisy Brown as Naiad

Nothing, however, should detract from France’s splendid evening. Having blended easily with her comic troupe before the interval, she has plenty in reserve for a tour de force of coloratura in the Opera, managing more than a hint of self-parody at the same time, while in almost perpetual motion. It is riveting.

Here, too, Elizabeth Llewellyn in the title role comes into her own. She was clearly in excellent voice for her initial aria, which was smoothly controlled, no mean feat given that she had to lie on a ten-metre high granite rock, which looked extremely uncomfortable. In duet with Bacchus, she convincingly negotiated the moments of doubt about his true personality before launching into glorious tone when the love-duet finally flowered, her upper middle range particularly gleaming.

Sadly, Ric Furman’s Bacchus was unable to match her. Clearly still suffering, his tenor sounded threadbare in comparison. Presumably distracted by his vocal difficulties, he also acted as if still in doubt about any hook-up with Ariadne, even at the close.

They finished the evening upstage watching the fireworks promised by the unnamed film director, reminding us of the play within a play, as did the cameramen who were present throughout.

Dominic Sedgwick as Harlequin, Adrian Dwyer as Brighella, John Savournin as Truffaldino and Alex Banfield as Scaramuccio

The evening has many other good things to offer, not least the slim-line orchestra under Antony Hermus. He is in his element in the Prologue, bringing a Mozartian jollity to Strauss’s lyrical riches. Yet he also conjures a tender intimacy from the chamber music opening of the Opera overture and velvety horn obbligato for Ariadne’s first aria, before unleashing a boisterous but disciplined finale.

The commedia dell’arte quartet manoeuvres wittily, ably led by Dominic Sedgwick’s Harlequin and Savournin’s Truffaldino. It is also a treat to have three such willowy nymphs – Daisy Brown, Laura Kelly-McInroy and Amy Freston – blending and capering alluringly, even if their constant arm-flapping, presumably suggestive of swimming, outstays its welcome. Victoria Newlyn is the otherwise engaging choreographer.

The Prologue is sung in English (translated by Christopher Cowell), Italian and German, mimicking the polyglot casts of international opera; German is used in the Opera, with English side-titles throughout. Gaitanou must have micro-directed this multi-talented cast. With Zerbinetta leading the way, Hofmannsthal’s transformation could hardly be more persuasive.

Review by Martin Dreyer

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 leedsheritagetheatres.com. On tour to Salford, Nottingham, Newcastle and Hull (New Theatre, March 29, school matinee, 1pm; March 31, 7pm; hulltheatres.co.uk).

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 ncem.co.uk.

Review by Martin Dreyer