Opera North’s programme in the elegant and splendidly adaptable Howard Assembly Room has a range of style, genre and target audience I doubt any other British company offers. However, I can’t quite share the enthusiasm for Cautionary Tales! that greeted its premiere performances a year ago.
The credentials are impeccable. Hilaire Belloc’s verses have a masterly wit and sense of the grotesque and an unfailing political incorrectness on the delicate subject of childhood. The creative team of adaptor/director Pia Furtado and composer Errollyn Wallen is skilled and inventive and Opera North has assembled four quality operatic voices in persons with total disregard for their own dignity! The result is original, enterprising and undoubtedly worthwhile, but seems to me to work hilariously at times, to misfire at others.
Perhaps it was a mistake to bill the opera as for 5 years old upwards. Five of Belloc’s tales of naughty children meeting hideous fates are re-told and a link between them is provided by four cautioners who enter as hideously masked old-style schoolmasters wielding canes. On first night too many of the audience lacked the frame of reference to get the joke and the performance began in audience unease. The story-telling is also none too clear at times: too much is implied and Wallen’s more operatic flourishes can obscure the words, especially of the female singers. Generally, even though Wallen’s eclectic background (including jazz and popular music) often shows pleasingly and there is fun music for such characters as a troupe of firemen, a more tuneful score would be welcome.
The compensations are, however, many. The energetic and versatile cast relishes the cross-gender casting and multiple costume changes. Mark Le Brocq makes the most of the transformation from Miss Fitton-style headmistress to Lion-as-rock-star and devours Geoffrey Dolton’s perky Jim in fine style. Alison Kettlewell has her finest moments as a gleefully untruthful Matilda and Katherine Broderick happily takes on character parts of either gender, her Zoo Keeper especially treasurable.
“Inventive” is probably the most appropriate word for the performance in general, certainly for Madeleine Boyd’s designs. Anthony Kraus directs the music unobtrusively from the piano, negotiating style-shifts with aplomb and leading a trio in which percussionist Mark Concar is kept very busy!