Strauss’ tragicomedy of high and low art scores a hit in Leeds.
“As a rule she is the most talented woman singer in the theatre… the Rosenkavalier is the only possible casting for the young Composer.” Strauss’ comment in one of his letters to Hofmannsthal is brilliantly illustrated in Opera North’s choice of Hanna Hipp, Garsington’s Rosenkavalier in 2021, since she was certainly the most talented singer in the Grand Theatre in Leeds last night. It was a brilliant touch on the part of the director Rodula Gaitanou, to have this character onstage for some of the second part, since the Composer’s passionate advocacy of Music as the holiest of arts is so amply demonstrated throughout the score.
Many questions abound with this funny, colourful production: why are the Nymphs’ movements seemingly based on those of the Martian Woman in Mars Attacks? Why have they been made up to look like Jeannette Winterson? Why does the arrival of Bacchus inspire titters from the audience? Why are parts of the Composer’s music in the Prelude sung in English, when the original German is so much more fitting – as in, ‘Du, Venus’ Sohn, gibt Süssen Loh’n’ rather than something rhyming ‘boy’ with ‘joy?’ There’s obviously a point being made in terms of contrast between the character’s outbursts and his musical inspiration, but it’s hardly consistent.
No questions, however, about the singing, led by Hipp’s ardent, totally convincing Composer, her lovely burnished tone at times bringing Janet Baker to mind, and Elizabeth Llewellyn’s imperious yet noble Ariadne, sung with aristocratic phrasing and poise. Ric Furman as Bacchus fits the definition of ‘Heldentenor’ in that his voice is very penetrating and powerful, and despite a somewhat titter-worthy entry in the finale, he cut an heroic figure and sang with some distinction.
“…why are the Nymphs’ movements seemingly based on those of the Martian Woman in Mars Attacks?”
Jennifer France was announced as having been unwell for some days before the performance, but you would never have guessed it from her vibrant singing and convincing acting as Zerbinetta. She managed her troupe perfectly, allowing Dominick Sedgwick’s Harlequin, Alex Banfield’s Scaramuccio and Adrian Dwyer’s Brighella to shine in their ensembles and individual moments. John Savournin doubled up as an hilarious Truffaldino and splendidly haughty Major-domo.
The action in a Fellini-style film set worked well, allowing Dean Robinson’s Music Master and Daniel Norman’s Dancing Master to play out their differences; both characterizations were splendidly sung and acted. In the opera itself, the Nymphs were less easy to follow, given their funereal black dresses and curious movement (see above) but Daisy Brown, Laura Kelly-McInroy and Amy Freston were up to the challenges, negotiating Strauss’ stratospheric lines with confidence.
Anthony Hermus is well known for his enthusiasm and ability to inspire an orchestra, and after a slightly manic beginning, he obtained wonderfully pliant, melodic playing from the Orchestra of Opera North. Ariadne is the perfect piece for this company and its ever-ambitious singers and players, since it is a true ensemble work, in keeping with the admirable ethos of nurturing a collaborative spirit which is rare in today’s world of mostly imported star singers and conductors.
• The production will go on tour to The Lowry, Salford Quays on Friday 10 March, the Theatre Royal Nottingham on Friday 17 March, and the Theatre Royal, Newcastle on Friday 24 March. Catch it if you can!
• Details can be found here.