The centenary of the UK's most successful opera composer has been celebrated far and wide in 2013, but in terms of quantity alone the palm goes to Opera North. The Leeds-based company followed its acclaimed staging of Albert Herring last spring with its current tour, a trio of productions under the umbrella title Festival of Britten. The composer's first and last operas, Peter Grimes (1945) and Death in Venice (1973), are joined in the company's autumn repertoire by a work from midway point in his operatic output, 1960's A Midsummer Night's Dream. All three are revivals of earlier successes.
Phyllida Lloyd, increasingly in demand as a theatre and film director (Mamma Mia, The Iron Lady), took personal charge of reviving her 1989 production of Peter Grimes. Although notionally set in the present day, there is a timelessness about the oilskins and sou'westers that dominate Anthony Ward's trawl-net and pallet designs. Extraordinarily powerful sequences such as the Ku Klux Klan-meets-The Wicker Man climax demonstrate Lloyd's command of the opera's libretto and score; indeed, there are moments in this Peter Grimes that I have never seen bettered. By contrast the sequence depicting a smiling Grimes overseeing the building of his house, though intended to show the brighter side of what Lloyd sees as his bi-polar character, is distracting in its oddness.
On its final night in Leeds before heading out on tour the vocal standards were variable. Giselle Allen, back from Aldeburgh Beach to play Ellen Orford one more time, was sure of tone and fully engaged with a role she knows better than most; Yvonne Howard was superbly muttonish as Auntie, landlady and madam at The Boar, and Benedict Nelson played Ned Keene, the drug-dealing apothecary, as a mellifluous spiv. The main recurring problem elsewhere was poor diction, a shortcoming not helped by Lloyd's decision to eschew surtitles. As for Jeffery Lloyd-Roberts, ox-like in the title role, his losing battle was with Grimes's floated tessitura rather than the text. [***]
Better fortune awaited A Midsummer Night's Dream. Martin Duncan's visually anaemic production was first seen in 2008 and, while not particularly original, it does a decent job of allowing a top-notch cast to shine. Stuart Stratford drew lucent playing from the Orchestra of Opera North and ensured that all the score's felicities rose magically from the pit.
Among a uniformly impressive company countertenor James Laing rang forth as Oberon (he would do the same the following evening as Apollo in Death in Venice), Henry Waddington was a lumbering lummox of a Bottom and Yvonne Howard popped in for a few luxury minutes to sing Hippolyta in the closing scene. As for Sky Ingram, whom I first encountered in a Guildhall performance of this same opera while she was a student, the role of Helena is probably hers now for as long as she wants it. Add an enchanting children's chorus, immaculately drilled both vocally and dramatically, and the stars bump up to four. [****]
Yoshi Oida's staging of Death in Venice was produced for the 2007 Aldeburgh Festival and is making its first appearance at Opera North. Alan Oke returns as Aschenbach in a performance so vocally unbridled and emotionally naked that his body and soul seem to disintegrate before our eyes. ‘From passion to the abyss' indeed. Peter Savidge contributes the most clearly and wittily defined set of Dionysian characters I have seen or heard in this opera; even when notionally offstage he lurks, his hawk-like eyes follow every move the doomed Aschenbach makes.
In its directness and simplicity the production, which was supremely well conducted by Richard Farnes, recalls the work of Oida's mentor, Peter Brook. Tom Schenk's restrained set, little more than shallow water and floating wooden walkways, evokes Venice as persuasively as any number of panoramic vistas – a clear case of ‘less is more'. For this superb revival (which has been overseen by Rob Kearley) Oida and choreographer Daniela Kurz have taken the bold step of casting a female dancer, Emily Mézières, as the boy Tadzio, and her eerie, androgynous presence is as unsettling as the opera itself. [*****]
- All three operas are currently touring to Salford Quays, Newcastle and Nottingham. Death in Venice returns home to Snape Maltings on 1 and 2 November. Full details here.