Opera North’s 2015 staging of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, a co-production with Welsh National Opera that now comes to the London Coliseum, in many ways captures the best of all possible worlds. The cast includes some excellent operatic voices, alongside a group of trained dancers and several principals who were clearly selected for their all-round abilities. The result is an evening that feels somewhat operatic in its overall proportions, but also succeeds in hamming up those elements that should be with just the right degree of slickness.
The staging, which was designed to work in a number of venues, is relatively simple, but no less effective for that. In Colin Richmond’s sets, a series of rectangular boards create the stage when their smooth black surfaces are shown, and the backstage area when they revolve to reveal rough wood. They can also be placed sideways to signify waiting in the wings and then entering. Backdrops of famous tapestries or paintings, and distinct props such as a centrally placed balcony, create bold and striking images without generating too much clutter.
The original director, Jo Davies, was responsible for Opera North’s Carousel in 2012 and the Oklahoma! currently appearing at Grange Park Opera. This production, now revived by Ed Goggin, does not come across as being as innovative as either of those two stagings, possibly because the piece is not as thematically rich to begin with. It thus provides fewer opportunities to penetrate the psychology of the characters, which is where Davies’ interpretations of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics really took flight. It is, however, presented on a grand scale so that ‘Another Op’nin, Another Show’ and ‘Too Darn Hot’ include their extended dance routines, excellently choreographed by Will Tuckett and now revived by David James Hulston, and a further pair of songs enjoy their full complement of two encores each. The result is that the production boasts an overall level of quality and class that makes it fit for the Coliseum stage.
The humour is also there as Davies goes to town on presenting effects that reveal just how corny the execution of the play they are staging is. For example, Kate throws plants from the balcony and the sound effect of them landing only emerges several seconds after they have hit the ground. There are also a host of nice touches such as the Finale of Act I in the play within a play originally occurring at the end of the real show’s Act I, but being repeated before our eyes when the curtain rises after the interval.
Unsurprisingly, however, the benefits that derive from an opera company producing the work are seen most in the musical output. The production uses Robert Russell Bennett’s original orchestrations, lovingly and painstakingly restored by David Charles Abell and Seann Alderking. When performed by a 60-strong orchestra, magnificently conducted by James Holmes, we gain a thorough insight into just how the rich the score really is. The lead roles of Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi are taken by the opera singers, Quirijn de Lang and Stephanie Corley, which makes their duet ‘Wunderbar’ particularly engaging. Graham’s baritone is both smooth and powerful, so that his solos ‘I’ve Come to Wive it Wealthily in Padua’ and ‘Where is the Life That Late I Led’ stand out. If he does not entirely capture Fred’s total sense of smug confidence, his performance is spirited enough for him to play a comedy dancing role alongside the trained dancers in ‘Were Thine That Special Face’. Corley achieves the right balance between conveying the scowling, expectant ‘shrew’ and a person who has genuine needs and feelings as revealed in ‘So in Love’, in which her impressive soprano comes to the fore.
If, however, it is the voices of de Lang and Corley that stand out most in their performances, Zoë Rainey and Alan Burkitt, who play Lois Lane and Bill Calhoun, come across as true all-rounders. Rainey executes ‘Always True to You in My Fashion’ brilliantly as her performance becomes ever more flamboyant as it progresses, with the added joke that by the time she hits her second encore she appears to have even tired herself out! Burkitt makes ‘Bianca’ an unexpected highlight of the evening by virtue of the most impressive tap dancing routine. Stephane Anelli as Paul leads ‘Too Darn Hot’ with flair, while Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin are highly polished as the Gunmen, with ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’ bringing the house down by virtue of their numerous embellishments and comic asides.
Oliver Rundell conducts for the matinee performances on 23 and 30 June and the evening performance on 28 June.
Following its run at the Coliseum, this production of Kiss Me Kate will appear at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh from 4 to 7 July. For further details and tickets visit the Opera North website.