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

Máire Flavin as Alcina in Opera North’s production of Alcina at Leeds Grand Theatre. Picture: James Glossop

Opera North in Alcina, Leeds Grand Theatre, further performances tonight and Thursday, 7pm, then on tour until March 24. Leeds box office: Also live-streamed on

HANDEL’S operatic audiences must have had stamina. Alcina, his most popular success at the box-office, clocks in at over three and a half hours, when given complete.

Nowadays we seem unable to treat Handel’s operas with the same reverence we extend to the parts of Wagner’s Ring, by giving them in full. Hence in Tim Albery’s new production – Opera North’s first attempt at Alcina – the dance music is omitted and the role of Oberto excised altogether. Both contain some top-class Handel.

Covid constraints are doubtless to blame, although not for the conversion of Melisso from bass to mezzo – henceforward Melissa – on the grounds that this was how she originally appeared in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, two removes distant from the anonymous libretto Handel actually preferred.

Other considerations apart, the presence of a bass helps to provide a better balance between upper and lower voices.

There was one other constraint. The general manager was at pains to point out in his introductory note that this was the company’s first sustainable production, en route to full Carbon Neutrality (his capitals) by 2030. This was not so much virtue-signalling as a smokescreen smudging the reality that décor and costumes would be ultra-low budget.

So Alcina’s island was experienced only via a video cooked up by Ian William Galloway. It mainly provided a jungle backdrop to the ten armchairs that were virtually the only props in Hannah Clark’s set, barring a bear rug that Alcina briefly ‘wore’, as if joining the ex-suitors she had turned into animals.

That was virtually the only magic on display. There was no sign of her palace. Clark’s costumes, recycled of course, were more appropriate to a 1950s’ nightclub than a desert island, a deliberate excursion into vintage. All of which suited the budget and was doubtless easy to believe if you had worked through it in rehearsal, less credible for someone encountering Alcina for the first time.

These reservations apart, Albery’s particular achievement is to fill the arias with plenty of action, even bringing on stage characters who are merely in the minds of the singers rather than intended to be present. So, there is never a dull moment.

Máire Flavin’s handling of the title role is a work in progress and promises much. But at the moment she has not quite assumed its full potential. The notes are all there and she looks determined enough, but there is not much emotion behind them and her affair with Ruggiero is short of electricity.

Her Act 2 scena, where she fights conflicting emotions, carries theatrical conviction but not the musical punch to match.

Ruggiero is played by the American countertenor Patrick Terry, making his company debut. His best effort is his departure aria, ‘Verdi prati’, where he relaxes into its cantabile line. Elsewhere, there are too many occasions where he tries to produce more sound than suits his voice and pushes himself out of tune. He is persuasive as Alcina’s puppy-dog, but less so thereafter.

The Norwegian mezzo Mari Askvik, another company debutant, delivers the purest Handelian style as Bradamente, the fiancée of Ruggiero who spends much of the show disguised as her brother. Her height and blonde bob reinforce this impression and her coloratura is splendidly clean.

Fflur Wyn is marvellously fiery as Morgana, Alcina’s sister, and tears into her big aria, ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’, with relish. Her on-off affair with Oronte, sung by tenor Nick Pritchard, is the crowning glory of Act 2, underlining what we have been missing from the other principals. Pritchard matches her fervour to a tee. Claire Pascoe makes the most of the shadowy role of Melissa, another enchantress.

Laurence Cummings is stylish in his conducting of a slightly thinned-down orchestra from the harpsichord, with two theorbos adding extra spice. This is a show that will probably mature as the run progresses, but presently does not compensate for its lack of magic.

Review by Martin Dreyer

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:

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 and Phoenix Dance Theatre, Bernstein Double Bill, Leeds Grand Theatre

Sandra Piques Eddy: “Brings a nimble soprano to Dinah in Trouble In Tahiti”. Picture: Richard H Smith

LEONARD Bernstein’s music is always dance-infused and largely dance-inspired, as we are powerfully reminded by this double bill of Trouble In Tahiti coupled with the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.

Bridging the two is ten minutes of poetry with percussion, in Halfway And Beyond, written and recited by Khadijah Ibrahiim. All of which offered the perfect opportunity for Opera North to rekindle its relationship with fellow Leeds company Phoenix Dance Theatre.

 Matthew Eberhardt’s production of Tahiti, revived from 2017, keeps everything neatly in period – 1950s’ American suburbia – with Charles Edwards’s revolving sets replete with billboard life-style ads, complemented by the period outfits by Hannah Clark.

The relentless jocularity of the smooth ‘Greek chorus’ Trio of Laura Kelly-McInroy, Joseph Shovelton and Nicholas Butterfield, with their close-harmony advertising-style jingles, contrasts pungently with Sam and Dinah’s humourless marriage and failure to identify with son Junior.

Their American dream – all the latest household gadgets topped off with chlorophyll toothpaste – is turning sour. Sam may even be tempted to stray at work, with Kelly-McInroy quite the frisky secretary.

Quirijn de Lang’s clean, macho baritone neatly fits the slick all-American guy whose life is bound up with muscle-building and making deals. Sandra Piques Eddy brings a nimble soprano to Dinah, wondering why her perfect lifestyle is letting her down even as she yearns for the Technicolor escapism of the title film.

Quirijn de Lang as Sam and Sandra Piques Eddy as Dinah in Trouble In Tahiti. Picture: Richard H Smith

While Island Magic has all the fizz you would expect, it is her wistful There Is A Garden that really touches the heart. Anthony Hermus conducts with boundless energy but finds touches of nostalgia when needed.

Ibrahiim’s poem deals with belonging and alienation and gains a cutting edge from the accompanying percussion, which is spare but telling. Its topic makes an ideal transition between the opera and the dance; it also offers Phoenix Dance a good opportunity to warm up.

Bernstein’s nine Symphonic Dances are keenly reinterpreted in the choreography of Dane Hurst, who brings his own South African experience of apartheid to bear on the original Jerome Robbins dance style, all wide stances and swaying torsos.

The athleticism is breath-taking, but the passion and poignancy of conflict, Jets against Sharks in West Side Story, has fiery depth. The 11 dancers of Phoenix deliver stunning ensemble, which must owe a good deal to the orchestra’s innate feel for the music’s tortuous rhythms: Hermus’s enthusiasm shines through.

Now that the two companies are back together, let us hope to see something of these dancers in a full-length opera. That would really be something.

Now on tour to Newcastle, Salford and Nottingham until November 20.

Review by Martin Dreyer

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.

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on A Little Night Music, Opera North/Leeds Playhouse

Old flames reunited at Opera North: Stephanie Corley as Desirée and Quirijn de Lang as Fredrik in A Little Night Music at Leeds Playhouse

A Little Night Music, Opera North and Leeds Playhouse, Leeds Playhouse, until July 17. Box office: 0113 213 7700 or at

THE collaboration between Opera North and Leeds Playhouse has finally resumed 13 months after originally intended. It has been a long wait but has picked up very fruitfully.

A bitter-sweet musical by the grand old man of bitter-sweet, Stephen Sondheim, is the perfect vehicle, reflecting on the fall-out from amatory accidents in European operetta just as we all contemplate a newly changed cultural scenario.

James Brining’s new production, updated to mid-20th century and hand in glove with Madeleine Boyd’s flexible set, is everywhere imaginative and often heart-warming, reaping the very best from a widely talented cast.

On the Playhouse’s apron stage – no proscenium arch (except briefly an improvised one for a Baroque throwback in The Glamorous Life – there is virtually no scenery. All is movable furniture: two clothes-rails, a grandfather clock, a doll’s house, a toiletry dresser, a double bed, a half-submerged piano. The only fixed point comes in Act 2, where the centrepiece is a fountain surmounted by a cherub, which is probably Eros.

James Holmes’s theatre orchestra – using the original and incomparable Jonathan Tunick orchestration – is placed at the back, stage right and blacked out for Act 2. Lighting designer Chris Davey’s discreet spots gently guide us to the next focal point, so that we are duped into feeling the action is continuous, the scene-changes happening magically.

Although much of the music moves in triple time, reflecting the triangular relationships of the story, its character evolves with the scenes. Holmes is masterful at these changing colours and accents, while remaining in close touch with his singers.

The Scandinavian twilight of Act 2, with alto flute, cor anglais, celesta and harp, is positively fragrant. He can equally easily find a lament in a waltz, as in Henrik’s Later, or pomposity in a polonaise, in the Count’s In Praise Of Women. His orchestra is the unsung hero of the evening.

There are some pretty splendid singers too. Heading the list has to be Josephine Barstow’s Madame Arnfeldt, the grande dame of the tale who has seen it all before, as she sardonically reminds us from her wheelchair in Liaisons. She exudes effortless authority through her commanding mezzo and diction that is a paragon of clarity.

As her actress daughter Desirée, Stephanie Corley brings a lovely soprano to her vacillating emotions; in Send In The Clowns, against a backdrop of slow choreography, her pacing and rubato is wondrous.

Opposite her – and incidentally rekindling their double act from Kiss Me, Kate with Opera North – is Quirijn de Lang as her erstwhile lover Fredrik, the lawyer caught in a mid-life crisis, whose firm baritone fires You Must Meet My Wife. His fall into the fountain is straight out of P G Wodehouse. Together their ambivalent emotions are cleverly cloaked.

Christopher Nairne brings an incisive baritone to his poker-faced Count, while Helen Évora’s Countess has charm to burn, notably in Every Day A Little Death. A word too for the Petra of Amy J. Payne, who brings both pizzazz and pathos to The Miller’s Son, a marvellous piece. Corinne Cowling’s Anne, Fredrik’s virginal second wife, and Laurence Kilsby’s high-strung Henrik merge neatly into elopement, while Agatha Meehan makes an engaging young daughter to Desirée (her alternate is Lucy Sherman).

The Quintet, five chorus members from Opera North acting like a Greek chorus, seem to me to sum up the whole show: they blend superbly, proving that good teamwork will always win the day. Congratulations to all, especially James Brining for pulling it all together.                                                                                                        

Review by Martin Dreyer   

REVIEW: Fidelio, Opera North at Leeds Town Hall, June 9

First proper live performance in 15 months: Opera North in Fidelio at Leeds Town Hall

IT was 451 days since Opera North’s last appearance before a live audience, according to general manager Richard Mantle. #

This was also claimed as the first night of this version, despite having the same cast – though with a different conductor – as had taken part in the livestream performance last December.

The explanation may well lie in the mysterious omission from the programme of the then director Matthew Eberhardt. Indeed no director was named at all this time round.

Conducting Francis Griffin’s reduced orchestration was Paul Daniel, erstwhile music director of Opera North (1990-97). With a dozen 25-year members in his orchestra, he was on familiar territory and conjured an easy response from his charges, notably hushed at the start of the quartet and at the emergence of the prisoners.

Occasionally, in Act 1, he strayed too far the other way. But he did not have the benefit of a sound engineer to balance the tone as his predecessor had enjoyed online.

At some point our critical faculties may kick in again, but at this stage it hardly mattered. December’s anger had dissipated into a vast sense of relief on both sides of the podium – the sheer joy of seeing singers, players, audience – so that gratitude outweighed most other considerations. 

There were some slight differences in approach by the principals. With her short hair parted in the centre, Rachel Nicholls’s Leonore looked more boyish than ever. Her anguished recitative prepared a Komm, Hoffnung that was both powerful and heartfelt, underpinned by succulent horns – a champagne moment.

Toby Spence’s Florestan opened up with a spine-chilling Gott, delivered from a seated position with head bowed, that seemed to come from nowhere. When they reached their final duet, they could hardly contain their laughter, so absurd did it seem not to embrace.

Robert Hayward’s vengeful Pizarro was more psychopathic than ever, while Brindley Sherratt’s Rocco had greater bite, tougher and less avuncular. The youngsters, sung by Oliver Johnston and Fflur Wyn, were similarly more vivid.

Matthew Stiff’s genial Don Fernando delivered David Pountney’s intermittent English narrative, but all else was sung in German. Glorious Technicolor it was not, but contrasts ran deeper, enhanced by Daniel’s knack of emphasising the score’s darker timbres.

Review by Martin Dreyer

Opera North launches home service for Zoom personal performances in lockdown

Going solo: Opera North’s Celine Saout will be playing her harp ONe to ONe in a new lockdown initiative for Zoom performances. Picture: Tom Arber

OPERA North is launching ONe-to-ONe, an initiative to bring live performance into homes across the country on Zoom, forging connections through music during Lockdown 3.

Designed in response to the increasing feeling of isolation at home in the pandemic, and the continuing impact of the loss of the usual culture fixes, ONe-to-ONe will provide personal online performances delivered by members of the Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North.

Slots will be available to book online. From a cappella arias and folk songs to Bach cello suites and a marimba solo, the recipient will be treated to a free virtual solo at a time of their choice, performed by a professional musician over Zoom. 

Building on the success of the carol concert streamed by the Leeds company to care homes in the run-up to Christmas, ONe-to-ONe performances also will be offered to residential homes to keep residents entertained and engaged with culture while the possibilities for social interaction remain limited.

Community groups will be invited to enjoy a special lockdown performance as part of the project too.

Phil Boughton, Opera North’s director of Orchestra and Chorus, says: “We’re aware that many people are finding this lockdown the hardest of all. It has also been a really testing time for the members of our Chorus and Orchestra who, due to the ongoing restrictions, have been unable to perform in front of an audience for many months. 

“ONe-to-ONe grew out of a desire on the part of our musicians to forge a musical connection with someone in need of a boost and to bring a moment of joy into people’s lives.

“The repertoire will be a ‘lucky dip’ with the performance kept under wraps until everyone is ready online, but anyone who takes part can be assured of an extraordinary experience streamed direct into their home.”

Each pay-as-you-feel performance will last around ten minutes, and slots should be booked on the Opera North website,, up to 48 hours in advance. Initially, they will be offered from Monday, February 15 to Saturday, February 27, with more than 90 performances available for booking during that time. 

David Greed, leader of the Orchestra of Opera North, says: “I’m really looking forward to seeing the reactions of people when we perform for them.

“It will certainly feel very different for me to be playing in my home and for the audience to be sitting in their living room rather than a theatre or concert hall, but it is wonderful that technology gives us the opportunity to keep in touch in this way.

“If ONe-to-ONe puts a smile on people’s faces and provides them with a memorable experience during lockdown, it will definitely have been worth it.” 

ONe-to-ONe joins Opera North’s other online options, such as the Little School of Music for primary-aged children, Orchestral Academy Online for young musicians and Writing Home song-writing workshops to help to create an art installation in the new Howard Opera Centre, in New Briggate, when it opens later this year.

Opera North launches Home song-writing project for installation at new Leeds centre

Writing Home: Opera North’s song-writing project for the Howard Opera Centre. Picture: Tom Arber

OPERA North is launching Writing Home, a community song-writing project for creating an innovative arts installation when the Leeds company opens its redeveloped home, the Howard Opera Centre.

The new building, on New Briggate, is designed to be a creative space for the whole community, an aim that will be reflected in an interactive musical trail on the theme of home.

Contributions will be recorded by schools, community groups, the Opera North Youth Company and members of the public, with visitors being able to listen to the resulting performances as they walk around the building.

As part of the project, a six-week course of free Writing Home workshops will be held online from Monday, February 22 at 6.30pm, led by professional  musicians Thandanani Gumede and Dave Evans.

Participants will be asked to explore what “home” means to them through a variety of musical genres before creating their own compositions. A selection of these will be featured as part of the final trail.

Everyone is welcome to join. No previous musical experience is necessary, only the willingness to try something new.

Jacqui Cameron, Opera North’s education director, says: “We will be embedding the voices of the people of Leeds and the North in the very walls of the Howard Opera Centre to create a sense of ownership and to encourage the whole community to see it as their artistic home.

“The word ‘home’ has assumed even greater importance over the past year, and this project aims to give participants the time to reflect specifically on what it means to them, and why it is important to us all to have spaces where we feel ‘at home’.

Work ongoing on former shop units beneath the Howard Assembly Room in New Briggate, Leeds. Picture: Tom Arber

“We hope this project will also provide a boost at a time when we are aware how much people are missing their usual evening meet-ups. Thanda is looking forward to finding the inner composer in everyone who takes part, helping them create something that will provide a great testament to the creativity of the people of Leeds in our new building.”

Despite the setbacks posed by the pandemic, Opera North has continued with its £18m redevelopment project on New Briggate, albeit it with new Covid-19 safety measures in place.

The Howard Opera Centre is pencilled in to open later this year. As well as providing new rehearsal facilities for the orchestra and chorus of Opera North, a costume and wigs workshop and administrative offices, the building will feature several public areas.

Among them will be a flexible education centre that will enable audiences of all ages and backgrounds to come together to learn about and participate in music making. 

Anyone accessing the education centre will use the same entrance as the artists and staff in a bid to inspire the younger generation and to encourage a feeling of parity and belonging.

Other public spaces will include a fully accessible atrium and a new restaurant and bar that will replace a row of previously vacant shop units.

Opera North’s performance venue, the Howard Assembly Room, within Leeds Grand Theatre, will reopen with an enhanced programme of musical and spoken-word events.

The work is being delivered by Sheffield contractors Henry Boot Construction, with the first phase scheduled to open in the late spring and final completion in the diary for autumn.

Opera North’s new orchestra rehearsal studio above the existing Harewood and Linacre rehearsal studios in the Howard Opera Centre, seen from the bottom of Harrison Street, Leeds. Picture: Tom Arber

Opera North general director Richard Mantle says: “We want young musicians to feel that they’re an integral part of Opera North, which is why we’re delighted to be able to give them the opportunity to rehearse in the same building as the chorus and the orchestra.

“Having our own dedicated education centre will facilitate more collaborations with the main stage; open up more learning and performing opportunities for children and young people, and provide extraordinary musical experiences for the wider community every day. 

“We very much hope that people will see the Howard Opera Centre as their artistic home in the city, with Writing Home marking the first step in ensuring they feel a part of the building and everything it represents.”

The company is “very grateful” to all the individuals, trusts and organisations that have helped it to raise more than £17 million towards the Music Works fundraising campaign target of £18 million.

Dr Keith Howard OBE, president of Opera North and founder of Emerald Group Publishing, made a philanthropic gift of £11.25 million; Leeds City Council has pledged to contribute £750,000, together with the lease of the vacant shops on New Briggate, and Arts Council England has provided £1 million, including a £500,000 Capital Kickstart Award.

The balance of the funds has come from private donors, trusts and supporters, including a £1 million donation from the Liz and Terry Bramall Foundation, as well as a significant contribution from Mrs Maureen Pettman and major gifts from private individuals.

In addition, gifts have been pledged by the Marjorie and Arnold Ziff Charitable Foundation; Wolfson Foundation; Backstage Trust; the Kirby Laing Foundation; the Foyle Foundation; 29th May 1961 Charitable Trust; Sir George Martin Trust; Garfield Weston Foundation; J Paul Getty Jnr General Charitable Trust; the Arnold Burton 1998 Charitable Trust and Alerce Trust. 

Opera North has launched the Play Your Part campaign, seeking support from patrons, Friends and audience members, as well as continuing to attract funding from the Leeds business community and further charitable trusts and foundations as it looks to raise the £500,000 still needed for the project.

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 until January 4

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: The Seven Deadly Sins, Opera North at Leeds Playhouse, livestream, November 21 to 23

Dancer Shelley Eva Haden’s Anna II and mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta’s Anna I in Gary Clarke’s Opera North production of The Seven Deadly Sins. Picture: Tristram Kenton

TWO weeks before this Gary Clarke production of Weill’s ballet chanté was due to go into rehearsal, the second Lockdown was announced, making the planned live performance – in a double bill with Acis And Galatea– an impossibility.

So, Acis was quickly dropped and a new physically distanced livestream became the order of the day. Without the normal lead-times, this was a tall order. Clarke rapidly conceived Anna (Anna I, the singer and Anna II, the dancer) and her family as German immigrants fleeing Hitler and thus displaced from the start.

George Johnson-Leigh’s set, imagined as an abandoned film studio, assigned a separate dais or “box” for each sin, with the family displaced into the no-man’s land between the boxes every time the two Annas changed city.

A large Hollywood sign at the back of the set thus pointed the contrast between that promised land, still booming in the 1930s, and the privations of the Depression – and, of course, current stringencies.

The contrast between the two Annas was not quite as strong as it might have been, partly because their roles were filled by two equally fetching performers. Canadian mezzo Wallis Giunta’s Anna I, supposedly the thinker and practical half of her personality, seemed to be enjoying, almost revelling, in the travelogue.

“Wallis Giunta is an actress of many hues and, when her tone is as focused as this, irresistible”. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Whereas a deeper pain was etched into the features of dancer Shelley Eva Haden’s Anna II, as she learnt to moderate her wilfulness to suit the paying customers on their tour.

But the paradox at the heart of this morality tale, about what you need to do to accumulate wealth, could not have been clearer: “Conquer your weaker self to conquer the world”, in Michael Feingold’s translation, sung under a shower of dollar bills. Only the temptations themselves might have been writ larger, although that would be hard to envisage in present conditions.

Giunta was on top form, forthright, even bossy, when need be but able to mine a deep nostalgia in the epilogue. She is an actress of many hues and, when her tone is as focused as this, irresistible.

Haden was no less versatile and utterly tireless. To Clarke’s choreography, she ranged the whole spectrum of dance, from the extravagance of Busby Berkeley (in a splendid, giant-sized feather headdress) in Anger, to Pavlova’s tutu-clad Dying Swan immediately afterwards in Gluttony.

She reached a manic peak parodying punk anarchist dancer Valeska Gert. Her brief spoken interjections were pleasingly clear.

Nicholas Butterfield as Brother and Dean Robinson as Mother in Opera North’s The Seven Deadly Sins. Picture: Tristram Kenton

The family quartet – tenors Nicholas Butterfield and Stuart Laing, baritone Dean Robinson and bass Campbell Russell – carried off their solo work as well as they blended, notably in the Sloth motet and the prayerful strictures of Lust. The ending was suitably ambivalent.

James Holmes, editor of the critical edition of Weill’s orchestral works and former Head of Music at this company, could not have been a better choice as conductor. The differentiation in styles was masterly and the playing, by 15 instruments in a reduced version by H K Gruber and Christian Muthspiel, had a succulent clarity.

It was just a pity that the low camera angles precluded much sight of the orchestra, although it was on stage. This is a minor reservation in the face of such an admirable achievement against near-impossible odds.

Finally, my special thanks to two patient members of the press office, Elizabeth Simmonds and Rowland Thomas, for bailing me out of a technological nightmare. Bring back live performance …                                                                                   

Review by Martin Dreyer