Editor: Marc Bridle

Regional Editor:Bill Kenny


Webmaster: Len Mullenger





WWW MusicWeb

Search Music Web with FreeFind

Any Review or Article



Seen and Heard Opera Review


Opera North on Tour: The Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays. 09-13.05. 2006 (RJF)

Puccini: La Rondine
Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro
Weill: Arms and the Cow


Since the conclusion of their winter tour in
Belfast in April 2005, Opera North’s activities have been severely restricted due to their home at the Grand Theatre Leeds undergoing total refurbishment and technical updating. They visited The Lowry, and a couple of other venues, in the summer of 2005 with one performance of a semi- staged production of Bartok’s Duke Bluebeards Castle (see review by Bill Kenny) featuring John Tomlinson and Sally Burgess which subsequently became the basis of the recently issued recording by Chandos in their Opera in English series.

In the following autumn Opera North’s activities were restricted to concert performances of Nabucco, which came to the Lowry in October (see my review), and semi staged performances of Hansel and Gretel in Leeds Town Hall. The vibrant performances of Nabucco are currently the basis of a recording that should make a thrilling CD issue in the same Opera in English series


With the promised land of a tentative date for a return to their home theatre set for June of this year, the Company re-instituted their normal spring policy of three productions. Unable to start in Leeds they spent two weeks in neighbouring Bradford before touring their normal venues. Playing for audiences carefully, they are touring one new production and two revivals which consist of a further outing for the 1994 production of Puccini’s La Rondine and, it being a Mozart anniversary year, their 1996 Marriage Of Figaro. For the season’s new production they again turned, perhaps spurred by the reception of One Touch of Venus, to Kurt Weill and Arms and the Cow.


Having no home base must have impacted considerably on stage rehearsal time and facilities. But at the halfway stage of the tour everything is as tightly knit as is the Company norm, and is superbly exemplified by the singing and acting in La Rondine. Peter Relton has revived Francesco Zambello’s original production in 2000 in which as I remember from the 1994 original, Tito Beltran’s Ruggero was a something of a chocolate box soldier in Act I. This was his UK stage debut after being a finalist in the Cardiff Singer of the World contest the previous year. At that time, Beltran lacked the vocal heft that Rafael Rojas brought to the current performance and which is needed in the finale of Act III when Ruggero berates Magda for sullying his sexual purity; an interesting variation on the norm, even in Second Empire France let alone the present day. But that of course is part of the incongruities between the Parisian demi-monde, and the sensibilities of an innocent young man from the south of the country.

This cultural difference is perhaps alluded by the sets: the blackness and business of Magda’s Paris salon in Act I, contrasts starkly with the white of the Provençal love nest in the simple Act III which indicates Ruggero’s physical and emotional purity. It is in Act III that the drama is really played out and where Janis Kelly as Magda showed her prowess as a singing actress. In her Paris salon she had been the perfect courtesan hostess and had portrayed a rather gauche ingénue in the nightclub of Act II. In both of those acts her singing was careful and her phrasing, often on a thread of tone, expressive. In Act III, both in the love duet and after Ruggero learns of Magda’s courtesan past, Janis Kelly lets her voice open out in passionate and strong singing. Yes, her voice could benefit from a little more colour, but its white purity, without any spread or acidity, can surmount even Puccini’s luxuriant orchestration. In these passionate outbursts, first of love and then anger, she is matched by Rojos’ strong singing. Like hers, his diction was a pleasure.


La Rondine is unusual in having major parts for two sopranos and two tenors. As the second tenor, the poet Prunier, Alan Oke sang and acted well. It is a difficult part to bring off; Prunier is not a wimp but a shrewd manipulator of Lisette, Magda’s maid, and her dreams. Gail Pearson acted well and sang with purity but not a lot of vocal colour. As Magda’s rather benevolent Sugar Daddy Rambaldo, Peter Savidge, a left over from the 1994 production, was rather wooden in his acting. The steep raking of the Lowry stage did not help his natural movement, or that of the other singers. Richard Farnes conducted with consideration for his singers and affection for Puccini’s seemingly little loved eighth opera. Whilst the work has not got the individual arias of Bohème or Butterfly, it is full of the composer’s melodic felicities and is dramatically cohesive. As an opera it deserves a better press than it often gets and this production and sets are ideal vehicles for its appreciation. I regretted that opera starved Mancunians and Salfordians did not turn out in better numbers to recognise the quality of the work and this performance. Perhaps opera lovers in the remaining touring venues will take note and give the performances better support than it received at The Lowry.


The second revival, The Marriage of Figaro, sung in English, was rather less successful than the La Rondine. The Act I set is crude, with Figaro and Susana’s allocated room being consisting of graffiti-sprayed flats and their bed being a mattress propped against the wall. Act IV opens with magical lighting and small cut-out trees that could, at a pinch, do the business of the assignations and Figaro’s uncertainties. However, the producer bungles this opportunity and the intended confusions of the act are not clearly delineated. Likewise the Act I shenanigans around the chair as Cherubino avoids the Count are also poorly managed. Whilst I cannot imagine any Count Almaviva physically passing out on discovering that Marcellina is Figaro’s mother, this Count’s meek acceptance of the overt aggression of his servants as they present their flowers -including jabbing them into his crotch-might have been meant to give the impression of a weak character. That impression was certainly reinforced by the light voiced singing of James McOran-Campbell whose lack of vocal bite and physical stature were not compensated for in the threats of incongruous and gratuitous violence on his wife. As portrayed here, the Count came over as a bit of a wimp rather than a suave seducer. Both Figaro and Count were light voiced baritones, but whilst Wyn Pencarreg as Figaro had the physique and vocal suppleness to support his vocal characterisation and expression via his acting, McOran-Campbell’s Count lacked even these advantages.

As Cherubino, Juliane Young’s facial and wide-eyed expressions, and her body language, were outstanding in what can be a difficult role to portray. She shaped both her arias well. Jeni Bern was a pert Susanna and a well-acted foil for the Count and her Act IV aria was a delight to listen to. With the role of Countess Almaviva, Linda Richardson takes a further step into a heavier fach. Her acting and duets with Bern’s Susanna were well done with the voices well-matched yet distinct. She shaped and phrased both her solo arias with care and with a pleasing purity of tone, although more colour and even a little decoration, had the conductor allowed it, would not have come amiss. Lucy Crowe’s Barbarina was very well portrayed and sung, including her brief Act IV aria. I note she will get to sing Susanna later in the run and I think she will do well in this role. As Marcellina, Angela Hickey was convincing but did not get her final act aria in this production, whilst Jonathan Best as Bartolo seemed to have lost some of his basso sonority but still sang a tuneful aria. I did hear comments about lack of clarity of the diction in the English translation from members of the audience and given the perfect match of da Ponte’s prosody to Mozart’s music I cannot help but feel that a performance in Italian with English surtitles would have served the audience interest better and perhaps allowed Christian Gansh, the conductor, to be more fleet in his tempi. As it was, I sensed that consideration for the singers and their phrasing was paramount in his mind.


The season at The Lowry concluded on the Saturday evening with a performance of Weill's Arms and the Cow. Is it an opera, an operetta, a musical, a cabaret, a burlesque or what? A more important question though, was whether or not what we saw here was actually Kurt Weill. Opera North has long championed him; I remember Love Life in 1994 and I described their staging of his One Touch of Venus as being the best show in town after its premiere in Leeds in December 2004. That was a work completely and undeniably by Weill who, by then in America and having absorbed the contemporary musical idiom through contact with Hammerstein, Lerner, Ogden Nash and others, planned Venus as a vehicle for Marlene Dietrich’s Broadway debut. For a variety of reasons it was staged without Dietrich but the work was premiered on October 7th 1943 at the Imperial Theatre, New York and ran for 576 performances.


By contrast, the title Arms and the Cow doesn’t appear at all in the Weill oeuvre. What does appear is Der Kuhhandel written in Paris in 1934 after Weill’s departure from Germany where he had become non grata. Like Arms and the Cow, this work is concerned with two conjoined states and an American arms dealer who in this version talks about WMD.  So far as I know this work never made the stage in Paris but a version of it had a brief life in Britain as A Kingdom for a Cow. Whatever else, the music being played was certainly by Weill and, given its orchestration, it was a good job that the various roles were sung and played here by goodly sized operatic voices that also had much dialogue to convey.

The roles of young couple whose marriage is thwarted by their President's need to raise money, to pay for armaments, were superbly sung and acted by Mary Plazas and Leonardo Capalbo. The only problem was in clarity of diction and the heavy orchestration and loudness of the orchestra. In Venus, the cast was a clearly appropriate well-balanced mixture of operatic voices and those from the world of the Broadway musical. The latter would have stood no chance at being heard in this performance. Even big voiced seasoned campaigners such as Don Maxwell and Jeffrey Lawton, the latter revealing an unexpected facility in humour, could not always be heard clearly. As to the staging, well it was very opulent indeed. The production is shared with the Bregenz Festival, where producer David Pountney is artistic director, and with the Vienna Volksopper. If it were not shared in this way, the sets and various costume changes would have used up Opera North’s budget for a few seasons to come.


Whether Weill would have recognised the Act II staging however, set in a bordello with transvestite drag queens fighting whores in the stalls at the start, I have my doubts. But then I also doubt if Leoncavallo would have recognised his Pagliacci in Opera North’s recent production which included the stage ‘audience’ at the comedia del arte players performance throwing paper darts, I certainly didn’t. No, what was presented here was far better in terms of sets and production and if we foget about the genre (and to a degree also Weill) what is on offer would not shame a Lloyd-Webber spectacular in the West End. Taken at that value it’s a damn good show. The large Lowry audience enjoyed it, particularly the topical jokes about stealth tax and British passports, and took it at face value. I suggest readers do the same as Opera North moves on to Newcastle, Hull, Sheffield and, finally, Aberdeen, the latter an entirely new venue for the company.


The wandering minstrels of Opera North have been thwarted in their hope of a final presentation of this trio of works at their home base. With doomed inevitability, the £35 million work to the Leeds Grand Theatre is running late and even the tentatively scheduled start to the 2006-7 season has now been delayed. The latest news is that next season will open on October 7th with a new production of Rigoletto featuring Rafael Rojas as the Duke, Giselle Allan as Gilda and Alan Opie as the eponymous jester. This will be followed by new productions of Peter Grimes, with the physically imposing Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts in the title role, and Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine, which has never been performed by Opera North. Given the security of their new home, with all its extra rehearsal and technical facilities, the Company can look forward to an even more exciting future than its distinguished past. Since it was tentatively spun out of English National Opera in 1978 it has brought many operatic gems to its audiences: I can look back on enjoyable opportunities of seeing many works outside the normal repertory such as Chabrier’s Le roi malgré lui and L'étoile, through to Cherubini’s Medea and Ponchielli’s Gioconda. Along the way have been Verdi’s first staged work Oberto and the rarely seen Giovanna d’Arco and Jérusalem. Add Rossini’s Thieving Magpie and heavyweights such as Boris and the fare has been rich and varied. With such imagination in repertoire, carried out under successive administrators and musical directors, from their new resplendent base, Opera North should bring to opera lovers of the North of England an even brighter future.




Robert J Farr


Back to the Top     Back to the Index Page





Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)