Leoncavallo and Ravel: Two ‘Little Greats’ on the New Taster Menu from Opera North

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Leoncavallo, Ravel: Soloists, Chorus, and Orchestra of Opera North, Leeds Grand Theatre, Leeds, 16.9.2017. (CF)

PagliacciRichard Burkhard as Tonio and Peter Auty as Canio. Photo Credit: Tristram Kenton.
L’enfant et les sortilèges – Katie Bray (Louis XV Chair), John Savournin (Armchair) & Wallis Giunta (Child)
(c) Tristram Kenton

Leoncavallo, Pagliacci
– Elin Pritchard
Canio – Peter Auty
Tonio – Richard Burkhard
Peppe – Joseph Shovelton
Silvio – Phillip Rhodes
Conductor – Tobias Ringborg
Director – Charles Edwards
Set Designer – Charles Edwards
Costume Designer – Gabrielle Dalton
Lighting Designer – Charles Edwards
Movement Director – Tim Claydon

Ravel, L’enfant et les sortilèges
The Child – Wallis Giunta
His mother / Chinese cup / Squirrel – Ann Taylor
Fire / Nightingale / Princess – Fflur Wyn
Grandather Clock / Tom Cat – Quirijn de Lang
Armchair / Tree – John Savournin
Tea Pot / Tree Frog / Arithmetic – John Graham-Hall
Louis XV Chair / Female Cat / Owl – Katie Bray
Conductor – Martin André
Director – Annabel Arden
Set Designer – Charles Edwards
Costume Designer – Hannah Clark
Lighting Designer – Charles Edwards
Choreographer – Theo Clinkard

L'enfant et les sortilèges: Katie Bray as Louis XV Chair, John Savournin as the Armchair and Wallis Giunta as the Child. Photo Credit: Tristram Kenton.
Pagliacci – Richard Burkhard (Tonio) & Peter Auty (Canio)
(c) Tristram Kenton

Opera North’s new season of ‘Little Greats’ opened on Saturday night, a season with the ostensible remit of offering short taster menus comprised of one or two operatic amuse bouche. The idea here is as simple as the marketing strapline suggests: short operas, huge emotions. In other words, curious newcomers to opera can try one of these shorter offerings on for size before attempting the more demanding full-sized operatic fare. It’s a nice idea in principle, especially when as is the case at Leeds, either opera can be viewed as a standalone event. However, as a double-bill, the clash of flavours that result from juxtaposing the Italian Late Romanticism of Leoncavallo next to the surrealist modernism of Ravel, as was the case tonight, can leave a rather confused aftertaste in the mouth.

This being Opera North, whose sensational 2017 has seen them winning various awards including two RPS Awards for their Ring cycle, high production values and heartfelt performances are to be expected. This was the case in both operas tonight but Pagliacci packed far more of the visceral operatic moments and sensational singing. The opera’s playful meta-operatic notions of the performing arts and their mimetic reflection of – and irruption into – life, was beautifully brought out in this production, sometimes with almost daringly causal naturalism.

Thus, the opera starts before the prelude with members of the chorus arriving for rehearsals at the back-stage set of a contemporary opera house. As the rambunctious music starts up, Tonio (Richard Burkhard), dressed as Taddeo in the commedia dell’arte being rehearsed, walks on to the stage with a Sainsbury’s carrier bag and coffee cup, as the curtain drops down to reveal a PR photo of the entire cast in their ‘civilian’ clothes. He delivers his opening prologue in English, advising us to be mindful of the semblances we are to behold, and then the stage is alive with colour and motion, as the chorus and principal characters begin their rehearsals. This was a bravura opening and the director Charles Edwards, Movement Director Tim Claydon and chorus are to be applauded for the intelligent use that is made of stage space and props to bring the rehearsal to life.

The hardest part in all this busy stage activity is to draw the eye to what is of dramatic import: thus, the clown’s head mask and red fright wig are front stage right, reminding us of the commedia dellarte being rehearsed and the opera’s title of Clowns, frequently draws our eye to where Taddeo sits plotting behind rails of clothes. Simultaneously, Silvio (Phillip Rhodes) sits at a piano where he rehearses numbers with the flirtatious Nedda (Elin Pritchard).

Other highlights of the thoughtful mise-en-scène included the six strip-lights turning incarnadine in the final act, hinting at the bloodletting to come; the use of a microwave to transmogrify chicken into a bucket of KFC, momentarily lightens the mood in a tense final scenes; and Taddeo’s slapdash application of clown paint to Canio’s face, which becomes semi-smeared and lends Pagliaccio’s face the menace of Heath Ledger’s infamous Joker from The Dark Knight.

Stand-out musical turns came from Pritchard’s Nedda, whose range and timbre brought goosebumps in the crescendos of her arias; the chemistry between her and Silvio was sincerely acted, though her erotic gestures occasionally seemed to have been copy-pasted from a Miley Cyrus video. Canio/Pagliacci’s tenor has a wonderful sweet spot and, of all the acting, his switch to the vengeful side of his nature convinced the most. The Iago-like villain of the piece, Tonio/Taddeo, had clearly done his shrewdly malevolent hatchet job well, as he was both cheered and booed by the audience at the curtain call.

Orchestrally, this was a very satisfying performance, as the delicate use of instrumental solos – harp, cello – in the duet between Silvio and Nedda, came across beautifully in the Grand Theatre. This was a blistering musical performance, a seriously well-measured accompaniment that never overwhelmed the vocal forces on stage. It is nice to be reminded of how much beautiful and thrilling music this seemingly slight opera contains.

A half-hour’s repose, and the stage had been turned around for Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges, which clocks in at an almost ludicrously brief 45 minutes. In one scattershot act penned by Colette, the thoughtless child of the title breaks things, hurts innocent creatures and learns his salutary lesson, so that all ends well.  A typically magical sound world is sculpted in the opening bars by Ravel, as on stage Wallis Giunta seemed to channel Harry Potter in a blue football kit. What follows seemed at times to draw its aesthetic and dramatic influences from old episodes of Eurotrash; brash cyans and magentas clashed alongside plaids and furs – Jean-Paul Gaultier would no doubt approve.

The reason for this opera’s limited appearance on stage is the difficulty in realising its magical realism, a typically early 20th Century taste for animating inanimate objects in the manner of Disney’s Fantasia – chairs, a grandfather clock, and a tea set. For the latter, two pink cups become huge breasts and a teapot’s spout is worn as a phallic prosthesis. This drew huge guffaws from the audience but struck me as a rather corny Carry On-style joke that rather outstayed its welcome. The many animals in the opera were cleverly portrayed, especially the band of frogs, who seemed to sport tennis balls for eyes that blinked open and shut, and the animation of a plaid armchair by John Savournin was particularly effective, tinged with the comic and creepiness of childhood imagination.

Giunta’s embodiment of the child is brilliantly done, and the singing by the principals was solid if not always standout. Whereas I found the farcical elements dated, the surrounding audience clearly did not, and seemed to enjoy this more than the more sober and brilliant ‘Pag’. Clever use of the stage was made throughout, and the most magical scene of all was the vision of the child made small against a vast starlit backdrop – a clever use of scale which is what Opera North do so well. All in all, I expect the schools’ matinee performances will be a success, and if turns more children on to opera, then it will have achieved the main aim in this ‘Little Greats’ season.

Cornelius Fitz

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