Opera North’s genuinely funny, true ‘company’ version of Mozart’s great work would be an ideal introduction to opera as well as a definite crowd pleaser for those well versed in the genre. It’s sung in English, a practice which some of us deprecate on the grounds that even so idiomatic a translation as Jeremy Sams’ cannot possibly convey the delectable symmetry of the music and da Ponte’s libretto, but beyond that one can surely have few complaints.
There is such a difference between the style of Opera North’s work and that of the major London and International houses: you really need to experience for yourself the sense of camaraderie and group endeavour here, as it is in such contrast to the kind of production where the principals hardly seem to be on nodding terms. The fiercely loyal audience helps too, as does the atmosphere they create in response to the music; you only hear such profound silences during arias in one other place, and that’s the Wigmore Hall – and in the lighter moments, laughter is hearty rather than embarrassed.
Jo Davies’ production highlights the farcical aspects of the story whilst not neglecting the poignant ones, and the interaction between the characters is its most singular feature. Phillip Rhodes was an outstanding Figaro: he has an impressive roster of roles to his name, and his flexible, finely coloured baritone blended beautifully with Fflur Wyn’s mercurial Susanna. Much thought had been given to their duets, so that even though ‘Ev’rything a hat should be’ does not come anywhere near the delight of ‘Che Susanna alla stessa si fè’ their vocal intertwining was still sublime.
The aristos were no less finely imagined. Quirijn de Lang has often been praised here, and his Count was a study in hauteur, suaveness and comic timing. Resembling a young David Niven, he presented a more than usually venal husband, though singing with stylish grace. His long-suffering Countess was the elegant Máire Flavin, exquisitely costumed and played without any sense of her being a comic character. Rightly so, for that she is not, and Ms Flavin’s singing lacked nothing of the required poignancy and dignity.
Heather Lowe’s Cherubino was possibly the stand-out performance in this very strong cast; she has previously impressed as Sesto in the company’s Giulio Cesare, so her convincingly boyish, fervently sung page was not unexpected, but she brought to the role a quicksilver presence allied to more than usual vulnerability. Both arias were exceptionally well sung, and we look forward to hearing much more from this talented young mezzo.
Jonathan Best could probably sing Doctor Bartolo in his sleep, so intimate is he with the part, and Gaynor Keeble’s Marcellina, with her fruity tone and commanding presence, was his ideal match. Joseph Shovelton’s Don Basilio was a delight, witty rather than seedy, as was Jeremy Peaker’s Antonio. Warren Gillespie made his mark as a more than usually sacerdotal Don Curzio, and Alexandra Oomens showed much promise as Barbarina. The small chorus managed to fill the auditorium with sound, and the two bridesmaids, Kathryn Stevens and Cordelia Fish, were a more than usually confident pair.
Antony Hermus was conducting his first work with the company after having been appointed its Principal Guest conductor, and what a fine job he made of it. The Opera North Orchestra has never sounded better; such was the elegance of the playing and the wit of the Continuo, that one could imagine a totally different band had played for the company’s searing Tosca.
Gabrielle Dalton’s beautiful costume designs, James Farncombe’s limpid lighting and Leslie Travers’ delicate sets all contributed to the show’s success. One might have wished for a bit more in the way of arboreal atmosphere in the final act, but no complaints about either the ensemble singing here, or the disquieting ending.