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Seen and Heard Opera Review



Kurt Weil, One Touch Of Venus (music by Kurt Weil to lyrics by Ogden Nash), Opera North, Leeds Grand Theatre, December 8th 2004 (RJF)



Normally in a performance or CD review, I would start by writing about the composer, then the work concerned, finally commenting on the production and performance. By the end the reader would generally have got the gist of my feelings. This review is going to be the exception. I am going to start with the end, as it were. Put simply, this is THE best show in town. Go out and get a ticket. Now, whilst they are available. The remaining performances in this first week in Leeds are fully booked after which the company takes its Christmas break. It reopens on January 15th with a new production of Don Giovanni followed by a revival of its admired Thieving Magpie. Before moving on to it’s usual touring venues there are only two further performance of Venus in Leeds. Tykes need to get a move on. Those living near touring venues have a little more time to get their act together.



Despite his short life Kurt Weil (1900-1950) was a prolific composer. Born in Dessau he, a Jew, was forced out of Germany in 1933. By that time he had composed a number of stage works. The later works were in collaboration with the dramatist Bertolt Brecht whose artistic aims and political philosophy he shared. After his forced flight from Nazi Germany, and failure of his musical comedies in London and Paris, he arrived in America in 1935. Through his friend Marlene Dietrich he was introduced to the movie business; film music could be rich pickings for a composer. Through contact with Hammerstein, Lerner, Ogden Nash and others, Kurt Weil absorbed the contemporary American musical idiom. His Lady in the Dark was a big success and Weil planned Venus as a vehicle for Dietrich’s Broadway debut. For a variety of reasons it didn’t happen with her. The work was premiered on October 7th 1943 at the Imperial Theatre, New York and ran for 576 performances.



Opera North has a distinguished tradition of presenting musicals and has had significant success with the likes of Show Boat and Weil’s Love Life. In this production by Tim Albery, in imaginative and wholly delightful sets by Anthony McDonald, superbly lit by Alan Silverman and dressed by Emma Ryott, they have another winner. What is more, this is the first fully staged production ever in the U.K. Why never before? I guess post war austerity, short memories and fashion. Another possible reason is that the some of the jokes might not have got past the Lord Chamberlain of post-war puritan Britain.  Of course, the story is impossible. It develops round the delivery of a statue of a shapely Venus dubiously acquired by the art connoisseur and collector Whitelaw Savory, sung by the Californian born bass Ron Li-Paz who also studied at RADA. His sonorous voice is never stretched and he sings and speaks his role with fluency, clarity and conviction. These admirable, and many would say essential qualities, are in evidence throughout the cast that has a nicely judged balance between U.K. born artists and those with American connections. Karen Coker and Loren Geeting sing the lovers, ex statue Venus and the barber Rodney Hatch. Both have light lyric voices and move easily, securely and with good diction between the spoken dialogue and the sung numbers. Christine Tisdale, a Broadway singer, is Savory’s feisty p.a. She acts with sparkle and conviction, as does Jessica Walker as Rodney Hatch’s intended; at least she was his intended before he met with Venus! Eric Roberts is superb as Taxi Black and Dr Rook. Although he doesn’t get much to sing he plays a full part in the superb barbershop quartet number ‘The trouble with Women’ in scene 7.



It is possible to say of some performances that they are better than the sum of their parts. Here the parts are superb and the sum even better. The music, with its jazz idioms was played as to the manner born under the baton of James Holmes. The ballets and dance movements were elegantly choreographed with the chorus and soloists fully co-ordinated and in synch. The slick pieces of Venus’ magic, and some scene changes, were assisted by the brief pulsing of several megawatts of bright lights facing the auditorium with the stage in darkness. Whilst this was effective and kept the slickness moving, susceptible people might need to quickly cover their eyes.



This production and the Autumn Cosi fan Tutte has done much to restore my faith in Opera North after some very quirky efforts with ‘Eight Little Greats’ in the Summer and their twitching Orfeo this Autumn. I hope there is enough budget left for Don Giovanni and that its sets, singing and conducting are up to the standard of this well rehearsed and presented show. I hope those that follow my advice will enjoy this undeservedly neglected work as much as the audience and I did.



Robert J Farr



One Touch of Venus opened at Leeds Grand Theatre on Wednesday 8 December. Photos © Stephen Vaughan.




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