With a spring in my step, I set out for the opera and a spot of entente cordiale.
My companions for a night of Mozart were Sophie and Camille, deux très belle femmes de Lyon. To paraphrase Wilde, to take one beautiful French woman to the opera might be considered fortunate, to take two, positively rapacious. I mention this as I often attend these wonderful evenings on my own and share the delights only with you, dear reader. Employment as a critic can oft be a lonely occupation so the pleasure of such company only served to heighten the experience.
I’m sorry about this, I seem to have got carried away on the charm of Mozart (even down to the poor schoolboy French) for The Marriage of Figaro is, above all, a charming opera, full of romance, confusion, humour and a good-hearted nature. No feelings were hurt in the making of this and everyone lived happily ever after.
It’s a bit of an Upstairs, Downstairs tale (I was going to liken it to Downton Abbey for a more up-to-date cultural reference but I hate the bloody Tory merde so you’ll have to mak do wi’ Upstairs, Downstairs). Figaro (Richard Burkhard) and Susanna (Silvia Moi), servant and maid to Count and Countess Almaviva (Quirijn de Lang and Ana Maria Labin) are about to be wed. The Count has taken a shine to Susanna and wishes to exercise the custom of ‘droit de seigneur’ (sleep with the bride on her wedding night). In the meantime, the Countess is in a dalliance with a young poet and page, Cherubino (Helen Sherman). It is a masterful piece of casting as Sherman brings a boyish boisterousness to her cross-dressing role aided by her powerful mezzo range.
Opera North‘s production is a delightful and complicated farce, supported by Vuillard lighting and design, elegant costumes, a talented cast and chorus, all ably backed by a wonderfully nuanced orchestra under the baton of Alexander Shelly.
As we strolled to the tram, my French chums declared The Marriage of Figaro to be ‘superbe’ and, in the interests of entente cordiale, who was I to disagree.
Two days later I found myself on the same tram heading back to MediaCity and The Lowry for the double bill of La vida breve by Manuel de Falla and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. Alas I was, once again, alone with nought but the thought of a night at the opera and the warm embrace of a few pre-theatre G&Ts to keep me company.
If all of this sounds a bit ‘loneliness of the long distance critic’, it was only to prepare me for the tragic tale of Salud (Anne Sophie Duprels), a lovelorn seamstress in a Spanish sweatshop awaiting the arrival of her lover, Paco (Jesús Álvarez). When the curtain rose on the set of de Falla’s short and only opera I thought I had been transported back to an episode of The Rag Trade (I apologise to any reader who has no idea of what I’m taking about, I was referring to the early 1960s sitcom set in the garment industry starring Miriam Karlin; for those of you of a similar age and cultural heritage, you get the picture). It’s a mournful scene with the chorus bemoaning the plight of workers everywhere (‘endless toil is our fate’) and Salud’s Grandmother (Elizabeth Sikora) fretting over the mental state of her granddaughter.
All seems to be well when Paco eventually shows up, all Iberian macho in leather and smoke. In brutal fashion, he has his way with Salud before it emerges he is to marry another, Carmela (Beth Mackay), all fur coat and no knickers.
This is all too much for the distraught Salud who kills herself in a remarkable scene replete with references from the blood-stained wedding dress in The Deer Hunter to the blood-splattered Carrie (by heck, you might not get a lotta opera but it’s packed wi’ cultural capital). I was stunned by the robotic gait and hypnotic performance of Quirijn le Lang as a flamenco singer at the wedding of Paco and Carmela, dressed as a dime store Elvis but whom I took to be Death. All in all, bloody and gloomily marvellous.
Lastly, as if to lift the bloodlust, Gianni Schicchi begins with the comic death of Buoso Donati (Tim Claydon) as his greedy relatives wait in hand-rubbing anticipation for the reading of his will, leaning against the backdrop in ‘usual suspect’ fashion. The updating of Puccini’s comedy to what could be a Mafia line-up from the set of Gomorrah lends it a contemporary purchase for, perhaps, a more media literate audience.
It was a lively, funny knockabout where the relatives solicit the skills of Schicchi (Christopher Purves) to alter the will in their favour after learning that the old man had left his fortune to the monks. He dresses as Donati for the Notary (Jeremy Peaker) only to cheat the scheming, bunga bunga cousins, brothers-in-law, nephews and wives (Victoria Sharp, Claire Pascoe, Elizabeth Sikora, Rhys Gannon, Daniel Norman, Peter Savidge, Dean Robinson and Brian Bannatyne-Scott) out of their inheritance, instead gifting it all as a legacy for the love-struck Rinuccio (Jesús Álvarez) of the Donati clan and Schiccihi’s daughter, Lauetta (Jennifer France). And for what better purpose could the old man’s money be put than young love?
My thanks to everyone at Opera North for a great week. I’m still listening to La vida breve while living la vita bella, though I suspect I’m being followed by a dime store Elvis.
By Robert Hamilton, Opera Correspondent
For tour dates, visit www.operanorth.co.uk