Robert Hamilton, Northern Soul’s Opera Correspondent, enjoys an outstanding Opera North Autumn season featuring Der Rosenkavalier, Billy Budd, Il tabarro and Suor Angelica at The Lowry in Salford. 

Opera North’s Autumn season at The Lowry began on November 9. It remains to be seen if this date will go down infamy but it certainly seemed to be filled with post-Trump despair. It even invaded the opening night of Der Rosenkavalier when Baron Ochs of Lerchenau (Henry Waddington), the groping, narcissistic villain of Richard Strauss’s comic opera, announced that he must “away to the White House”. I don’t know who was responsible for this outrageous piece of self -referential satire but I just wanted to say a huge thank you. It cheered me up no end. In fact, the whole production gladdened my heart and reminded me that while your average Trump supporter might reach for his revolver when he hears the word ‘culture’, it is culture that will provide me with sanctuary and succour for the next four years. Well, that and gin.

Der RosenkavalierIt was Aleksander Markovic’s first production for Opera North as he takes over the role of musical director from Richard Farnes. And what a great start it was. Der Rosenkavalier begins with a maturing Marschallin (Ylva Kilberg) in bed with her young lover, Octavian (Helen Sherman). It was a raunchy opening and a daring statement of intent by the new man in charge. Caught in a soft post coital glow, the arrival of her relative Baron Ochs is announced. The baron is to be betrothed to Sophie von Faninal (Fflur Wyn) and he needs a Rosenkavalier (a knight of the rose) to deliver a silver rose to his fiancée on the eve of their wedding. Octavian is chosen and as sure as opera is opera, he falls for Sophie as he delivers the rose in a costume worthy of Baz Luhrmann himself. As comic confusion reigns, love wins the day and nobody dies.

It was a smart, sexy production with excellent and funny performances, sumptuously designed sets and costumes (David McVicar, who also directs, and Tanya McCallin) bathed in warm sepia tones by Paule Constable. I can’t let it pass without a special mention of Helen Sherman as Octavian, a bravado soprano transgender performance worthy of a Grayson Perry documentary all of it’s own. It was a glorious, unforgettable experience with joy in each minute.

An altogether darker affair is Billy Budd, Benjamin Britten’s all male tale of longing, jealousy and redemption. The beautiful and good Billy Budd (Roderick Williams) is pressed into service on HMS Indomitable, captained by Edward ‘Starry’ Vere (Alan Oke), in the war against the French. Budd is suspected of revolutionary sympathies by the Master-at-Arms, John Claggart (Alastair Miles), who vows to destroy his beauty and goodness, the very qualities that Capt Vere so admires in Budd. In a well staged battle scene, the Indomitable chases a Frenchie into the windless mist without engagement, leaving the poop deck with so many undischarged and frustrated seamen as the enemy escapes. In a deep bloodlust, Claggart accuses Billy of mutiny in front of Vere. Out of a stuttering anger, Budd assaults Claggart and kills him, leaving Vere as the only witness. Vere is caught between duty and natural justice. Justice wills that Vere free Budd after his persecution by the evil Claggart, but naval duty demands that Budd be hanged from the Yardarm until dead. All at sea between right and duty, Vere refuses to save Billy, who is condemned to hang. Billy Budd

The whole crew give a manly, memorable performance but it is Williams as Budd, Miles as Claggart and Oke as Vere who hold the opera together. Claggart’s base notes will haunt me for some time as will Vere’s plaintive epilogue: “We committed his body to the deep. The sea-fowl enshadowed him with their wings and their harsh cries were his requiem.”

My final visit to Salford’s Lowry was to the Puccini double bill of Il tabarro and Suor Angelica. They are meant to be performed as a ‘trittico’ (trilogy) alongside Gianni Schicchi which Opera North staged last year with the excellent La vida breve (see Northern Soul‘s review here). At two hours, the evening felt a little short and I left feeling unsatisfied even although it was my third opera in as many days. Il tabarro was a brief glimpse into the dour lives of Italian bargemen loading and unloading cargo with only wine and love to brighten their daily grind. Michele (Ivan Inerardi) runs this small operation with his lusty wife, Giorgetta (Giselle Allen) who is squiring the young, handsome hired hand, Luigi (David Butt Philip). It was a tragic tale with Michele killing Luigi for his transgression as if death is the only reward for the brief solace of illicit flesh.

Suor AngelicaThe fate of Suor Angelica fared little better. Sister Angelica (Anne-Sophie Duprels) has been abandoned by her well-to-do family in a convent for seven years for giving birth to an illegitimate son. It is sung beautifully by the company of nuns as we see them going about the business of nunning with a breezy good humour. Angelica is visited by the Princess (Patricia Bardon), a brilliant female trump in lime green, who coldly informs her that her son is dead. The abandoned nun poisons herself in heartbreak for a son she never knew. It is an extremely moving tale-which would have been fine if they had left her dead on the floor of the convent. But then it goes all 2001. The wall of the convent moves back to reveal a rose window, which mutates into a kaleidoscope, then a universe, then a foetus, then her son. She rises, drops her gown and walks naked towards him as the light fades and the curtain drops. I felt it to be overly symbolic and crassly spiritual, as if Terrence Malik had got hold of the last five minutes. Nevertheless, it was a mere hiccup in nearly nine hours of an outstanding Opera North season.

Finally, keep a space in your opera diary for Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music’s festive production of Offenbach’s seductive La Vie Parisienne (December 7-17). One to look forward to.

By Robert Hamilton, Opera Correspondent