For OperaWatch, it’s a welcome return to The Lowry for Opera North’s 2020 spring season. With all the opera critic trainees on lockdown it was up to me to cover for them while the government dithers as to what to do. Armed only with a rare bottle of hand sanitizer and a flask of medicinal gin, I headed to MediaCity for a night of pure farce (although the BBC newsroom near the theatre was providing plenty of that). Opera North’s production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, arguably the finest of his operatic comedies, would have him laughing in his pauper’s grave. It was, above all the great things in this performance, really funny.

The story concerns the marriage of Figaro (Phillip Rhodes) to Susanna (Fflur Wyn), servants to the Count and Countess of Almaviva (Quirijn de Lang, Máire Flavin). The Count has eyes on Susanna by way of ‘droit de seigneur’, the feudal right of a lord to sleep with any woman on his estate on her wedding night. Figaro is out to stop this while trying to escape the desire of the matronly housekeeper, Marcellina (Gaynor Keeble). The Countess, starved of attention from the Count, has her lusty eye on page Cherubino (Heather Lowe). With all the usual complications, including a great visual joke where the Count’s workers unveil a banner declaring their love for him, the ensemble resolve their differences and live happily ever after. The Count is the butt of much of the humour but even he redeems himself and the love of the Countess, while the cast display a great sense of slapstick timing and innuendo. “What about the sight gag?” I hear you shout. It involves the brief obscuring of the O in Count on the banner and you know the rest.

The Marriage of FigaroIt was a brilliant night and cheered me up no end. I want to thank everyone at Opera North, with a special tribute to the performance of Fflur Wyn as Susanna. Warm, energetic, and hilarious with a golden voice, she was worth the tram journey alone.

I braved the tram again the following night to see Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the Screw. Based on Henry James’ play and novella of the same name, it is a spooky tale of a young governess (Sarah Tynan) employed to look after Flora (Jennifer Clark) and Miles (Tim Gasiorek), the wards of an absent uncle. Mrs Grose (Heather Shipp) is their much put-upon char. The house is haunted by the ghosts of Peter Quint (Nicholas Watts) and Miss Jessel The Turn of the Screw(Eleanor Dennis), spirits of previous employees. The libretto, written by Myfanwy Piper, hints at inappropriate relations between the children, Quint and Miss Jessel, but Mrs Grose refuses to divulge any illicit details to The Governess, a common theme in many of Britten’s operas. This sense of sexual tension is enhanced by Miles kissing The Governess and suggestively slipping into her bed. But Miles is ‘a good boy’. As Mrs Grose and Flora flee the increasing apparitions of Quint and Jessel, Miles mysteriously dies in the arms of The Governess. As Freud would say, ‘all very uncanny’.

It was a chilling production with the stage and lighting design by Madeleine Boyd and Matthew Haskins adding to the uneasy atmosphere. All the performances were excellent, but the Billy Gilmour Man of the Match Award goes to 11-year-old Tim Gasiorek as Miles. Well played, my son.

By Robert Hamilton, Opera Correspondent  

Images courtesy of Opera North