Theatre Royal, Newcastle
11th November 2017
Opera North is not quite the oligarch-backed opera of the Russian state machine, but it is a distillation of all that is best in the greatest of all the art forms. Newcastle, Hull, Nottingham, Manchester & of course the troupe’s native Leeds are all grandiose beneficiaries of Opera North’s dedication for touring the classics through the operatic backwaters of Britain, whose talented bevvy of musicians & singers are steelishly determined upon bringing the best out of their performances. I experienced them for the first time last Saturday, with the wife & I driving down from East Lothian on a most scintillating sunny day. We had taken a room at the Royal Hotel in Whitley Bay, which took rather a long time to find as nowhere about looked liked the image I had stored in my phone. It then dawned on me I had downloaded an image of the grand whitewashed, cliff-perch’d Royal Hotel in Whitby by mistake, & after laughing at my foolishness the wife & I finally checked into our rooms for the night.
Into Newcastle we went by metro, the Paris of the North-East the wife called it, & there is indeed a salubrious beauty to the city. The Tyneside was especially enigmatic, with its stone’s-throw Millennium Bridge to Gateshead, all set in a plethora of sparkling, water-reflected neon. The grand, sandstone Theatre Royal was equally as splendid; a fine, fine building in which we would take in three of the Little Greats throughout the day – this season’s 6-part program compiled & produced for its loyal fanbase by Opera North. ‘The guiding principle,’ General Director Richard Mantle told the Mumble, ‘is to create a broad range of musical, theatrical & – above all – emotional experiences for everyone. By presenting six short operas rather than three standard-length works we are able to explore the boundless variety of opera in a single season.’
In the afternoon we caught Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortiliges, a curious dream-poem in which the rampages of a precocious child come back to haunt him. ‘I don’t want to do my homework, I want to go for a walk, I want to eat all the cake,‘ sings Wallis Giunta, also of the Leipzig Opera Ensemble, who proceeds to smash her house up when her parents are out. From this point ensues Ravel’s self-confessed pastiche of styles, reflecting the several different broken pieces of the household which spring to life in order to admonish the Child. Of these, John Savournin as the armchair was a rather remarkable watch; the symbiotic bodyswerving of sensual, mee-owing cats was equally as beaming a vision; the phallic-spouting teapot (John Graham-Hall) appeared rather like one of those African fertility statuettes; & the ascension of cyan-bloused, velvet-voiced Fflur Wyn’s princess from a giant book of fairy tales was pure Alice in Wonderland. ‘You searched for me in the heart of the rose & the scent of the lily,‘ commenced her sparkling duet with the Giunta, which was for me the musical highlight of the L’Enfant.
About half-way through there comes an extremely slick scene change, where the Child’s house is replaced by a starry universe & then a Garden for the denoument. The ending, in which the Child finds forgiveness & redemption among the tutelary spirits of the animals & plants he had systematically damaged in the garden in the past, went a little off-piste. The spirits arrived chiefly as sack-headed gargoyles, which threw my observational sensibilities off-guard a tad – it was quite scary to be honest – while Jon Savournin’s return as the crucified Tree was equally as harrowing. Once I’d calmed down, however, & re-engaged with Ravel’s remarkable creation, I found the performers all carrying out their singular parts with luminous talent, thus creating a stellar whole.
Returning to the Theatre Royal in the evening, while we were dining across the road in the busy but worth-waiting-for-your-food Italian eaterie that is Carluccio’s, the following conversation ensued.
‘Do you have the tickets, darling?’
‘No, I thought you did.’
Our tickets were, of course, back in Whitley Bay. With only minutes until the first of the evening’s double-bill commenced, we found ourselves in a spectacular tizz. Luckily, on hearing our predicament, the nice people at Opera North managed to find us two more seats – the last in the house it seem’d – & we were able to continue the feast. With nourishing serendipity, our new seats were right beside a certain Matthew Eberhardt, L’Enfant’s young assistant director, who spoke to the Mumble about touring with Opera North.
I’m quite sad to be nearing the end. Producing six operas was a massive challenge for us, but an amazing & fun project. We’re finding our audience enjoys the shorter operas. We live in the Netflix generation now, & feed upon a diet of 45 minute slots. As for going on tour, intimate theaters such as here in Newcastle, & Nottingham, are so similar to the Leeds Grand where we are from, that recreating them is not a problem. We’re going to the Lowry in Salford next week, however, & I for one am rather nervous about how we will do on its extremely large stage.
So to the operas themselves, two products of the late 19th century Italian passion for ‘verismo,’ where real life dramas were created by librettists & composers being able to finally do something of their own, freed from the constraints of formal Wagnerism which had dominated every breath, set & step of opera for decades. The sub-genre’s chief themes are infidelity & revenge; to which both Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci & Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana conform with eager purpose. Pagliacci tells the story of adultery & a menage-a-quatre backstage in an opera company, through which the female voices were in full flourish & we saw star turns from Richard Burkhard (the kapitano of Opera North) as Tonio, Peter Auty’s exuberantly dramatic Canio, & Katie Bird as a perfect Nedda. These three, & the rest of the company, enacted their roles in a revered synthesis that made it the best opera of the day. Perhaps I am biased, but there are portions of Ruggero’s libretto that transcend even Dante at times, especially;
Oh, what a flight of birds, what clamour!
What do they seek? Where do they go? Who knows?…
My mother, who foretold the future,
understood their song and even so
she sang to me as a child.
Hui! How wildly they shout up there,
launched on their flight like arrows!
They defy storm-clouds and burning sun,
as they fly on and on through the heaven.
Light-thirsty ones, avid for air and splendour,
let them pursue their journey; they, too,
follow a dream and a chimera,
journeying on and on through clouds of gold.
Let winds buffet and storms toss them,
they challenge all with open wings;
neither rain nor lightning daunts them,
neither sea nor chasms, as they fly on and on.
They journey towards a strange land yonder,
a land they’ve dreamt of, which they seek in vain…
Vagabonds of the sky, who obey only
the secret force that drives them on and on.
The final panel of the day’s tryptych was the moody slice of maddening village life & the Catholic soul-song that is Cavalleria Rusticana. Somewhere in Sicily, the dowdiness of meniality is deliciously offset by lungtingling lyrics & the only taxi in the village. I’d seen it twice before, but on both of those occasions did not realise how much potential the opera had to be, well, bizarre. Korolina Sofulak clearly had a vision, & brought to the table an aesthetically pleasant & musically wonderful piece, but something a little too abstract was also tossed into the mix & on one occasion I turned round to the wife & mouthed, ‘what the f**k.’
Still, Giselle Allen Santuzza was a brilliant watch, protesting & writhing under the cross as she shivered & shook through her post-seduction by Jonathan Stoughton’s Turridu. Phillip Rhodes was also mightily impressive as Alfio, seeing as he’d just had to smash Silvio in Pagliacci only an hour or so before. As a spectacle, it was like eating three different-flavored chocolates at once, but it was still all rather quite beautiful. The music made it so, especially the gloriously influential Intermezzo. Thus, with the night’s histrionics over, when conductor Tobias Ringborg took the stage to join in with the bows – I applauded most heartily his, & the orchestra’s, precise & sublime accompaniment. With that it was time to go, the fantastic night-life of Newcastle’s teeming, tipsy streets was leaving its trot for the gallop, & away we rode into the night…
Reviewer : Damian Beeson Bullen