Venue: The Lowry
Where: Salford

Opera North’s visit to The Lowry this season has had problems. Principal singers in Otello have colds and yesterday's performance of La Clemenza Di Tito has a delayed start because Conor Murphy’s hyper-cool ‘black box’ stage set refuses to revolve. The problem is resolved by having stagehands push the bloody thing.

Courting popularity Tito, emperor of Rome (Paul Nixon), rejects the woman he loves in favour of a local bride. Infuriated at being overlooked Vitellia (Annemarie Kremer) seduces the emperor’s best friend Sesto (Helen Lepalaan) into staging a coup.

Opera North’s new production of Mozart’s opera takes the contemporary point of view that politicians are out of touch. Director John Fulljames offers a striking visual interpretation of the theme by isolating the governing body in a hermetically sealed black box. But the exploration of the theme results in production that is, in itself, remote and distant.

This is at least in part due to the source material. Written on commission and intended to be celebratory Mozart’s score is light and lively even when addressing the darker themes of the opera. Much of the score is written for sopranos requiring female singers performing male roles and the absence of bass voices makes it hard to replicate the low tones often used to develop tension and suspense.

John Fulljames shows style and imagination in his direction. The opening, as the overture plays, is so skilfully staged it sets out the background and character of those involved without a single word being uttered. Annemarie Kremer has a moment of shockingly visceral atonement. The gentler moments in the opera are splendidly realised. Paul Nixon shows the burdens of leadership and his delivery catches the sense of longing for human contact with great sincerity. Helen Lepalaan’s anguished repentance is heartbreaking.

But, like the music, the direction lacks drama and tension. The chorus of Opera North, who have played a significant role in the staging of past productions, are relegated to the orchestra pit. It is an audacious way of illustrating that the voices of the public may not be heeded.

But it is disquieting and without the chorus scenes that simply demand crowds fall flat. This must be the only revolution without any revolutionaries. The coup is represented by shredded paper swirling around the characters which fits the contemporary setting but isn’t really as frightening as a crazed mob. Having modern art style displays projected onto the background does not relieve the static feel of the production.

Opera North offer a stylish production that is undeniably relevant to the present day but which also fails to bring out the drama of the situation and wastes the resource that is the chorus.

- Dave Cunningham