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Opera North Season Launch: Merry, & The Ring

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How do you manage to programme an opera season made up almost entirely of new productions in the present straitened economic climate? According to Richard Mantle, General Director of Opera North, by ingenious use of joint productions, though I think the company’s 15% increase in subscriptions for the current season must have helped to bestow some sense of financial comfort.

The programme for 2010-2011 has a few safe bankers, but just as many enterprising and even risky choices. The first banker, and the only revival, is a home-grown success and one whose return will be greeted with universal delight. The Adventures of Pinocchio by Jonathan Dove proved a very rare bird indeed on its premiere with Opera North two years ago: a new opera that was entertaining as well as musically rewarding and one that appealed equally to adults and children. It returns with virtually the same cast, to take its place in the Autumn season along with The Turn of the Screw and The Merry Widow. Oddly it’s the first time Opera North has tackled Britten’s psychological ghost story and the occasion is graced with three company favourites in the main female roles (Elizabeth Atherton, Giselle Allen and Yvonne Howard) alongside newcomer Benjamin Hulett as Peter Quint. As Richard Mantle points out, though Opera North has built a reputation for its productions of light operas, musicals, etc., the standard operetta fare has not been too much in evidence. So it’s about time The Merry Widow reappeared, with a team of Wyn Davies (conductor), Giles Havergal (director), Craig Revel Horwood (choreographer) and Kit Hesketh-Harvey (translator), all skilled in the art of going just a touch too far.

When Opera North first appeared on the Grand Theatre scene, I seem to recall there was some sort of an agreement to slip in the equivalent of a pantomime each Christmas. This has lapsed as largely impracticable (there are only so many productions of Hansel and Gretel or Rossini’s Cinderella you can do), but there is a real Christmas season for 2010, with performances of Pinocchio and The Merry Widow extended over Christmas.

The Winter season illustrates splendidly the balancing act required of opera companies. Who has heard of Mieczyslaw Weinberg, born in Poland in 1919, lived in Russia most of his life, close associate of Shostakovich, died 1996? Not me, certainly, until now, yet he composed bucketloads of symphonic works and seven operas and was accounted the third great composer of the Soviet Union. So there is every reason to stage The Portrait, based on a story by Gogol. But will anyone come? That’s where the insurance policy comes in: The Portrait is programmed alongside a new production of Carmen. Both have very interesting teams in place, including Weinberg enthusiast David Pountney as translator/director and Paul Nilon adding to his impressive list of Middle and Eastern European misfits, and, in the case of Carmen, exciting double casting of company favourite Heather Shipp and American debutante Sandra Piques Eddy.

Carmen carries over into the Spring season on the theme of Freedom. Opera North moves one step nearer the goal of staging all Janacek’s major full-length operas (only The Makropoulos Case to go) with From the House of the Dead, with a powerful team of Richard Farnes (conductor), John Fulljames (director) and principals Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Alan Oke and Robert Hayward. And no Freedom season would be complete without Fidelio, in this case not quite a new production, but Tim Albery revisiting his outstanding Scottish Opera production of some 10 years ago, with Dietfried Bernet providing the fireworks in the pit.

Another question: how does a medium-sized regional company approach the Ring Cycle? If you’re Scottish Opera, by staging a magnificent cycle over four years (Mr. Albery again) and virtually bankrupting yourself. If you’re Opera North (up till now), by affecting deafness every time Musical Director Richard Farnes expresses a desire to conduct The Ring. Now the company’s found the third way: annual semi-staged concert performances in the Town Hall in association with the Sage Gateshead and Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Some recent Town Hall concert performances (including Tristan and Isolde) have been stunning in their impact, so Das Rheingold in Summer 2011 should be a mighty climax to the season.

But January 13th’s gathering in the Howard Assembly Room was not just to launch the 2010-2011 season. It was also a celebration of the Howard’s first birthday (cake and all!) and of the splendid work that’s taken place there in the last 12 months. So it goes on. The current main house productions of La Bohème and Ruddigore are supported by such events as film showings of A Bout de Souffle and Topsy Turvy (introduced by Mike Leigh himself), a programme of French chansons and an intimate evening (an audience of 30) for Victorian tales and melodies. And what about an installation isolating all the parts of Tallis’ great 40-part motet, Spem in Alium, running for much of February with free admission, or a commemoration of the 1984 miners’ strike in two events at the end of March, with Barnsley’s own Ian McMillan in attendance?

Now that’s what I call ingenious programming!

- Ron Simpson


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