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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Martin Dreyer 2/2/2024

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on 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. Leeds box office:; Hull,

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

A scene from After Tears

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