The latest production from Opera North aspires to be accessible to an audience for whom opera is felt to have few attractions – children. Apart from a brief running time, Swanhunter makes few concessions to its target audience being based upon a Finnish epic poem with which few will be familiar.
Alasdair Middleton’s story tells of the magician Lemminkainen, who, being capable of singing magic spells, leaves his mother to seek a wife. His quest requires him to capture the Devil’s Elk, ride his horse and shoot the swan that swims on his lake. Lemminkainen sets about his tasks unaware that an invisible assassin is stalking him.
The story is unsatisfactory in that it feels unfinished leaving the hero back where he started without his wife and his assailant unpunished. Possibly the need for brevity necessitated the omission of some relevant details but is remains hard to admire a hero who has to be rescued from a predicament by his mother.
Although played by a modest six-piece group of musicians (violin, accordion, harp, horn, double bass and percussion) the score by Jonathan Dove is more successful. It fulfils the twin tasks of telling, and commenting upon, the tale. A dreamy violin describes the prospective wife and the double bass provides a rumbling ominous backing for the appearance of death. Conductor Stuart Stratford moves the opera along at a brisk pace creating a cinematic feeling of excitement from the interaction of the strings and brass.
By concentrating upon remaining true to the spirit of the genre director Clare Whistler allows a rather dull atmosphere to arise. As in all operas the characters constantly repeat themselves explaining what they intend to do or are doing. Little imagination is used to create any sense of the alien environment in which the action takes place.
The kingdom of Death is unremarkable and the olive combat-style costumes by Dody Nash seem drab although they do emphasise the bright white costume of Death’s Swan. One of the few acknowledgments of the age range of the target audience is the occasional burst of humour with one of the demon dogs taking a leak on the hero’s leg.
Where the production really works is in the singing. Hearing operatic voices in such an intimate venue inspires awe. The cast is also small in scale with six singers taking a variety of roles and providing an ensemble chorus. Andrew Rees makes an excellent hero capturing the rather arrogant style of Lemminkainen. Best of all, however, is Yvonne Howard as his mother whose stirring vocal fills the theatre and brings the show to a powerful close.
Its is admirable that Opera North is willing to both try and attract and challenge a young audience but a shame that Swanhunter could not have had a bit more colour and excitement.