Pleasure and pain of the opera season

Opera North's production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel
Opera North's production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel
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As the curtain goes up on Opera North’s latest season, David Denton takes a look at the highlights ranging from tragedy to comedy.

Richard Mantle is not one who believes opera has a niche audience.

Far from it. In fact the general director of Opera North is is confident the company’s new season is further demonstration of its mass appeal.

“We have carefully balanced drama with comedy throughout the year to open up a broad range of artistic experiences for people of all tastes, backgrounds and ages, a vital part of Opera North’s missions since it was first founded,” he says. “Though very different in styles, each of the composers represented lavished some of the best music ever written for the stage, with works that encompass masterpieces from the last four centuries.”

Invited to take a completely new look at popular operas by Verdi, Monteverdi, Mozart and Puccini are four of todays most sought after theatre directors, opening with Alessandro Talevi’s production of La Traviata.

The impressionable young Alfredo is caught up in a wealthy Parisian social scene where he falls in love with the courtesan, Violetta. It is a simple story of self-sacrifice, that has, over the years, left the door wide open to many differing productions.

Two South Korean singers head-up the cast, Hye-Youn Lee, one of opera’s fast rising stars who is making her debut in the role of Violetta, partnered by Ji-Min Park as her lover.

With the remarkably gifted Italian conductor, Gianluca Marciano, at the helm, the company are placing a great deal of confidence in the production’s success, running the opera through the whole of the autumn and winter seasons with changes in cast and conductor adding further interest from January.

Then turn the clock back just over 200 years, and you arrive at Monteverdi’s “great masterpiece”, The Coronation of Poppea, a score that hands the producer, Tim Albery, a blank sheet of paper to work upon when he creates its third new staging seen in Yorkshire over the past year.

With little more than a vocal score of dubious origin and with some scenes obviously missing in this true historical story, what arrives on stage today can only be a version of the work originally composed. Whether it initially had an orchestral accompaniment is equally unclear, so that the task of turning these sketchy sources into something Monteverdi might have recognised, is here placed in the hands of the conductor, Laurence Cummings, a world authority in this field of music.

James Laing is cast as the power-crazed ruler, Nerone. who sweeps aside his embittered wife as he becomes increasingly infatuated by the femme fatale, Poppea, sung by the seductive voice of the American mezzo, Sandra Piques Eddy.

We are at least well prepared for the revival of Daniel Slater’s distinctly odd view of Smetana’s comedy, The Bartered Bride, first seen in 1998. He had the unusual idea of changing the original action, which was set in a happy rural town of 19th century Bohemia, to Czechoslovakia caught up in the turbulent year of 1972.

Thankfully the bubbling and lighthearted score remains unchanged, and with the vivacious Scottish soprano, Kate Valentine, and the American tenor, Brenden Gunnell, as the bumbling Jenik, the musical aspects are certain to be a success.

Throughout the year you will be playing the game of “spot Opera North’s next music director”, and no one will start out with a better pedigree than Alexander Shelley, who makes his theatre debut with the company in January.

He won the Leeds Conductor’s Competition back in 2005, and has since enjoyed a highly successful career in the concert hall.

On stage in Mozart’s comedy, The Marriage of Figaro – the third of the new productions – is the Norwegian soprano, Silvia Moi, who has already sung the role of Susanna for Berlin’s Komische Opera. She is partnered by the Australian mezzo, Helen Sherman as Cherubino, Richard Burkhard sings Figaro and we welcome the company debut of the highly experienced Romanian-born soprano, Ana Maria Labin, as the Countess.

Very much an audience favourite for the Opera North appointment comes Jac van Steen, the Dutch conductor of the double bill directed by Christopher Alden. He contrasts a revival of his previous company production of De Falla’s one-act opera, La vida breve, with Puccini’s hilarious Gianni Schicchi.

With a graphic rape scene that caused some audience disquiet when this staging of De Falla’s Spanish suicide story was first seen in 2004, this rerun features the French soprano, Anne Sophie Duprels, and the Spanish tenor, Jesus Alvarez.

Asked whether he would ever consider writing a Broadway opera, Richard Rodgers replied that he had already come close to doing so with Carousel, a musical that is packed full of classic numbers including If I Loved You and You’ll Never Walk Alone.

It occupies much of the company’s Spring season, together with a new production of Jonathan Dove’s family chamber opera, Swanhunter, that opens in London’s Royal Opera House before travelling north.

Sadly we shall not be seeing Richard Farnes, the company’s Music Director, conducting in the theatre this coming year, but he does make a most welcome return next June for a concert staging of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman featuring singers seen in the company’s Das Ring des Nibelungen. Alwyn Mellor sings Santa with the Estonian tenor Matti Turi as Eric, and following his highly regarded Wotan in Die Walkure, Bela Perencz sings the Dutchman.