Okay, three nights does not a week make – but why spoil a Marx Brothers’ pun for the sake of numerical accuracy? Besides, as I get older my accuracy becomes more of a problem, numerical or otherwise. And ageing has become something of a problem for opera. Not only is its audience shrinking, it is advancing in years. Despite the many outreach programmes run by various companies, Opera North included, young people do not go to the opera (apart from that annoying six-year-old brat who fidgeted all the way through Turandot at Leeds). I can only hope that, like me, many music lovers come to opera later in life and that opera’s future audiences are just in the process of growing up.
One of the criticisms made of opera is that it’s too long to hold the attention span of the now generation. Perhaps this was the inspiration behind Opera North’s new season of Little Greats at The Lowry? Six short operas over three nights to explore the full range of experiences that the genre has to offer. This meant that, over three consecutive nights, I had to endure the trauma that is the Manchester Metrolink – although I was lucky this time, no contact or affrays with the Ticket Gestapo. The last time nearly put me off going to The Lowry altogether.
On the first night was the delight of verismo opera based on the lives of ordinary folk. Two of the great exponents of this style were the Italians Leoncavallo and Mascagni. The paring of Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana, or Cav and Pag as they are known, is traditional, and a wonderful paring they were. Pagliacci is a play within a play set in a small village during the season of the sap rising – lust is everywhere. As a visiting theatre troupe rehearse ‘Pag’, the underlying sexual tensions unfold within the players. Tonio (Richard Burkhard) fancies Nedda (Elin Pritchard) who is married to Canio (Peter Auty) but who is having an affair with Silvio (Phillip Rhodes), a veritable ménage à quartre.
The company play out the drama with a blistering intensity until, unable to control his jealous desire, Tonio tells Canio, now in character as the clown Pagliacci, of Nedda’s unfaithfulness. In a fit of drunken rage, Canio kills Nedda and Silvo. The village audience, as witnesses to the tragedy, sing mournfully ‘it is making me cry, the play is so real’. Cavalleria Rusticana, set during Easter, is rather more religious and melancholic in tone but no less emotional. Another ménage à quartre is unfolding and unravelling. Turiddu (Jonathan Stoughton) is the wayward son of Lucia (Rosalind Plowright), the owner of the village shop. He has seduced Lola (Katie Bray), wife of the local Mafioso, Alfio (Phillip Rhodes). Turiddu has also seduced Santuzza (Giselle Allen), a good Catholic girl before returning to Lola, who is disillusioned by her marriage to Alfio. Consumed by guilt, jealousy and an unhealthy addiction to confession, Santuzza tells all to Alfio, who exacts a terrible and bloody revenge on Turiddu. Both moved me as only verismo opera can. The music and the performances of the principals and chorus carried the tragic mix of sex, guilt and vengeance to an emotional place that only opera can take you.
The second paring was Ravel’s L’enfant et Les Sortileges and Janacek’s Osud. Both are modernist in tone and, I suspect, more challenging if the drop in audience was anything to go by. ‘L’enfant’ was playful, surreal, jaunty and scary in equal measures. A child (Wallis Giunta) is locked in his room to finish his homework. In a fit of rebellion and rage he destroys and tortures everything in sight – school books, crockery, furniture, the clock , the boiler, the wallpaper and even the cat. With Alice-like menace, all the things he has attacked come to life to protest at their treatment. He escapes to the garden where his past misdemeanours continue to haunt him. In multiple roles, Ann Taylor, Fflur Wyn, Quirijn de Lang, John Savournin, John Graham-Hall, Katie Bray, Lorna James, Kathryn Walker, Victoria Sharp and Rachel J Mosley play chairs, cups, nightingales, trees, clocks cats, bats, owls, dragonflies and fire with uncanny threat and gusto.
The boy learns his lesson – things you torture will come back to haunt you. Pay attention CIA and MI6! Meanwhile, Janacek’s Osud is much less playful and more concerned with the nature of creativity and its muses. Composer Zivny (John Graham-Hall) is trying to finish a difficult opera. His previous muse and lover, Mila (Giselle Allen) finds him in creative retreat. She introduces him to their lovechild, Doubek (Bryn Mashburn) and they renew their life together. Five years later and Zivny is still struggling to finish his opera. He is married to Mila who has brought her mother (Rosalind Plowright). Mother has been driven crazy with the shame of Mila’s marriage to a penniless composer. Both daughter and mother fall to their deaths in a storm. Fifteen years later and on the eve of its premiere, Zivny still hasn’t finished his opera as the last act fell to its death with his muse. Zivny dies in the arms of his grown son (Warren Gillespie). Giselle Allen as Mila was really excellent but John Graham-Hall’s performance as Zivny was towering and held the opera together with his endless search for creative truth and an ending.
Finally, we come to Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti and Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trail by Jury. In truth, the Bernstein is more musical than operatic. You can hear the melodies of West Side Story foretold in arias like There’s a Garden and the underlying theme of trouble in post-war America is certainly echoed here. It could be called Trouble in Suburbia as the plot revolves around the troubled marriage of Sam (Quirijn de Lang) and Dinah (Wallis Giunta), locked in their little white suburban prison and held together only by the presence of Junior (a big round of applause for Charlie Southby). It is a duet supplemented by a radio jazz trio (Fflur Wyn, Joseph Shovelton and Nicholas Butterfield).
I found it melodious and sad but I think Bernstein’s enemy is not suburban marriage but American capitalism. The grand finale was provided by a high energy, rip roaring rendition of Trial by Jury. It was a bravado ensemble performance but the stand-out was a belting turn of The Judge’s Song by Jeremy Peaker as the Learned Judge. The whole company must be given a huge bravo and a standing ovation, and a final hurrah to set designer, Charles Edwards whose sets for all the operas were innovative, functional and gave everything a unified aesthetic. Not only that, he directed the brilliant Pagliacci as well.
I though the whole week a great success and I enjoyed every moment. I hope that Opera North’ s choice of six Little Greats goes some way to redressing opera’s age imbalance. Though, as I stood to let a couple pass, the gentleman said “thank you, young man”.
By Robert Hamilton, Opera Correspondent
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