Manchester Theatre Awards

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Opera North's 'Little Greats'

Opera North’s season of ‘The Little Greats’ is bringing six short operas to The Lowry, in pairs, from November 15 to 18, with a Saturday matinee of one also available on the 18th. Thanks to the generosity of Opera North, I saw them all in Leeds, in slightly different combinations from the Salford ones.

First off on this side of the Pennines are the classic pair of Italian ‘verismo’ tragedies, Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, only in this case Pagliacci comes first. On the Thursday it’s Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, followed by a rarity from Janáček - Osud (meaning Destiny). On the Friday two lighter, shorter works take the stage with Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti and Trial by Jury by Gilbert & Sullivan, and on the Saturday L’Enfant et les Sortilèges is repeated in the afternoon, and then Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana recur in the evening.

Pagliacci, L’Enfant et les Sortilèges and Osud were all originally slated to be conducted by Aleksandar Markovic when he was the company’s music director. He left somewhat abruptly in the summer, and Tobias Ringborg, already part of the season’s conducting team, has stepped up to the rostrum for Pagliacci (he was already down for Cavalleria Rusticana and Trouble in Tahiti) and Martin André has taken over L’Enfant and Osud. Oliver Rundell conducts Trial by Jury.

In the event, the entire enterprise is a great example of Opera North’s ensemble philosophy, with principal singers in one production popping up in support roles in another and chorus members frequently stepping into the limelight, and it seems only natural that set and lighting design for all six productions is by Charles Edwards, and there’s a common front cloth showing the assembled team – directors, performers, chorus and all – in a group photograph.

Edwards directs Pagliacci, and his reinterpretation of the ‘strolling players’ story uses the idea of an opera company in rehearsal. So the performers are themselves – concept photos of the other operas are visible on the rehearsal room walls, and the chorus are first heard sitting down practising their notes. Props that will recur in other Little Greats shows are simply lying around.

It’s not so much ‘On with the motley’ as off with it, most of the time – though Peter Auty, as Canio the tragic clown, gets to wear his face-paint and wig for the ‘final run-through’. Nedda (Elin Pritchard) is having an affair with the conductor, Silvio (Phillip Rhodes).

It all begins with Tonio (Richard Burkhard) giving the prologue, suitably adapted, in English (‘You’ll see a company rehearsing an opera’), though the story itself is sung in Italian – until in the final line Tonio reverts to English to shout that ‘The performance is over’. It’s almost a motto piece for the entire series (though I hope this verismo does not extend to real stabbings behind the scenes at Opera North).

Cavalleria Rusticana is a masterpiece that sprang full formed from its creator Mascagni’s youth and which, arguably, he never excelled. It’s been popular for excerpting from the day it was written (Charles Hallé conducted the much-loved Intermezzo in concert in his later years), and that, the Easter Hymn and the Brindisi (drinking song) pop up everywhere.

It has the reputation of being the first ‘verismo’ opera, with a degree of truth to real life that the art form had never created until then. It is true to its title of ‘melodrama’, and, if any opera deserves the reputation of being a shabby little shocker, this is surely it.

Karolina Sofulak’s production shifts it in both space and time from 19th century Sicily to Poland in the 1970s – Catholicism is still the background, but it’s in the ‘greyness’ and scarcities of a subjugated society, as well as the treatment of young women, that she sees parallels. The only clear locale is a shop, and there is no visual equivalent of a church, just a wooden panel with a cross on it – for some reason, the scorned Santuzza’s former lover Turiddù (who is ultimately to die for his seduction of Alfio’s wife, Lola) climbs on to it with arms outstretched like a crucifix at one point, though I couldn’t see why.

The great virtue of this offering is that it has the same two outstanding women principals as does Osud: Giselle Allen is Santuzza, and Rosalind Plowright is Lucia (Turiddù’s mother). Turiddù is Jonathan Stoughton, a young British tenor with a big voice making his only contribution to The Little Greats with this role, and Phillip Rhodes is a highly convincing Alfio – we see him as a decent bloke and possessor of the only decent little car in town, driven to vengeful murder as he realizes his marriage is utterly adulterated.

Annabel Arden directs L’Enfant et les Sortilèges in a manner that, like her other best work for Opera North, is faithful to the score and the book but full of imaginative touches. The Child (Wallis Giunta) has his hand-held electronic device to engage his attention at the outset, rather than listen to his Mother (Ann Taylor): what youngster today wouldn’t? Fflur Wyn, Quirijn de Lang, Katie Bray, John Graham Hall, John Savournin, Lorna James, Kathryn Walker, Victoria Sharp and Rachel J Mosley complete the cast – the sort of team only an ensemble enterprise of this kind could provide for Ravel’s 45-minute fantasy.

It’s definitely on with the motley in the costume department, as chairs, teapot, fire, wallpaper figures, cats, squirrel, storybook princess and the rest all come to life, following Colette’s delicious libretto. The story, with its hints at adolescent awakenings alongside dawning awareness of the need to help one’s fellow-creatures as a child grows up, in Annabel Arden’s version retains an innocence that’s wholly appropriate.

Osud is an early work by Janáček but requires considerable resources: there are 26 named roles, it’s in three acts and takes an hour and a half – in short, a compact opera in its own right.

It gives a fascinating insight to its composer’s own psyche, as it’s a tale he concocted himself about a composer writing an opera in which his own life and love are the inspiration. So it’s a story within a story (almost a leitmotiv of the Little Greats season), and another aspect of the Janáček characteristic of writing about emotions he’s acutely felt already.

Annabel Arden is again director, and she presents the scenario pretty straight. She’s borrowed an idea from those who have staged this rare piece in recent years in the Czech Republic, which is to begin in the present day. She shows Živný, the composer (John Graham-Hall), supervising an exam in his music conservatory, and then runs the first Act as a 20-years-ago flashback in his mind, followed by the second Act as a 15-years-ago flashback, returning to the present for Act Three, where the exam ends and the students ask him about his opera. But she doesn’t change the order of the notes.

The opera is sung in English, but with surtitles also, which with Janáček’s orchestrations helps.

There is a particularly strong cast. John Graham-Hall brilliantly sang the title role in Opera North’s The Adventures of Mr Brouček a few years ago; Giselle Allen (who’s done wonderful work for Opera North in the past) is Míla, the object of Živný’s passions; and Rosalind Plowright is her mother. Peter Auty, Richard Burkhard, Dean Robinson and Ann Taylor are there, too, and the other roles are supplied from Opera North’s multi-talented chorus.

Trouble in Tahiti and Trial by Jury contrast with the bigger emotions of some of the other ‘Greats’. They come from different eras – Leonard Bernstein’s from his early years as a composer in the 1950s, well before West Side Story, but clearly showing some of the knacks that would go to make that later masterpiece – Gilbert & Sullivan’s first extant collaboration from the late-ish 19th century but before the polished gems of HMS Pinafore and it successors.

Each has a claim to attention, though, not just because some of their creators’ skills were embryonic when they were written, but because some were already fully formed. (Bernstein, in particular, was already a master of the ‘ear-worm’ of a simple melodic motif that can tug at your heart-strings as it returns and is quoted from one number to another). Both works carry a degree of social satire of their times – and in these productions both get treatments which connect, albeit tangentially, to the ‘behind the scenes’ or ‘story within the story’ themes of Pagliacci in its new guise.

In Matthew Eberhardt’s production  of Trouble in Tahiti we are in a radio studio, as the Trio who act is a kind of Greek chorus in the score do it to make the links and jingles of the format. The scenes unfolded are of a husband and wife who are growing apart and a child who suffers as a result – catching the unease the fifties brought about growing post-war affluence and soullessness.

In John Savournin’s Trial by Jury it’s a more thoroughgoing modernization of the G&S original, which may not be to everyone’s taste, though the audience I was part of loved it. The period seems to be the 1930s, and the overture is obliterated by a supposed flouncy TV showbiz reporter (borrowing the idea from Singing’ in the Rain) outside the courtroom, establishing the re-interpretation of the plot as that of a jilted film star suing for her offended feelings but really just hyping up the publicity for her latest picture. Women were rare on juries in the Thirties, but Savournin has several of them, and a woman as the Plaintiff’s Counsel, rather than the baritone Sullivan wrote for, so the whole thing is even more topsy-turvy than usual.

Apart from that, it’s much as G&S wrote it, with the dotty old judge (Jeremy Peaker) the centre of most amusement. Glamorous (and RNCM-trained) Amy Freston is The Plaintiff. This showbizzy kind of style is her ideal milieu, and I’m happy to recall that I first heard her lovely voice singing another work by Sullivan, back when she was still at ballet school in London.

Robert Beale