A light-hearted evening with a no-surprises programme becomes—by way of faux pas and churlish security—a bit more interesting than intended.
I was running—well, a fast walk—to Millennium Square, to rendezvous with my plus-one when I noticed that our July heat seemed decisively to have ended abruptly for this outdoor concert. Although my shorts- and-short sleeves-garbed concert co-attendee was verbally irked at this caprice characteristic of English summer, I felt duly prepared with an umbrella and cardigan. At the entry gate, we were informed that no umbrellas were allowed, and they would have to be stowed by the bins for the duration.
Why should this be such an issue? Well, most of the concert was spent under violent attack by thick summer rainfall. This justly enraged my plus-one and me, especially when we saw the person in front of us, with a cagoule which made her look like Barney the Dinosaur, pull out not one, but two umbrellas for her personal advantage! Although a benevolent couple behind us, taking pity on our obviously pathetic calamity, offered us a large Asda bag (of the 10p variety) with which to shield our heads, my concert notes were rendered largely useless by the generosity of the rain, leaving me to use my weak memory to describe the evening.
I may just add a further couple of scandals before moving on to the music itself. On the way in, our absurd list of rules doubled as, checking our bags, we were told that we could not bring water into the venue. Thus I had to pour this valuable commodity, for which some in the world are desperate, down the drain. What do I see in the arena, then, but a free drinking water dispensary? Thus I was easily able to fill the bottle again, rendering the rule laughably pointless.
The next absurdity came in the interval when, responding to heavy rain, my plus-one and I went to the gate with the intention to retrieve the umbrella and hide from the elements in the nearby Wetherspoons until the concert recommenced, whereupon we found the bouncer who had so abused us already using my umbrella, who told us that we were not allowed to go out and come back in!
Irksome features now put behind us, let us move on to the real entertainment. The programme itself held no great surprises and, indeed, a few of these ‘classics’ were so well worn as not really to plead another listen. The concert began with Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, which has never lacked irritation and is strangely insulting, to my mind, in its implying what music might be appropriate for what class of people. I suppose America considers these things differently from England. (Or as an American would say, differently than.) I was glad to have missed most of this piece whilst being frustrated in the umbrella debacle described above.
The next piece, however, Smetana’s Vltava is always a pleasure, and never seems to get too old to endure another hearing. The Orchestra of Opera North under the direction of Renato Balsadonna shone and glistened in the rich orchestration and colour of Smetana’s excellent writing. The strength of the evening climbed higher as a truly thrilling rendition of Prokofiev’s Dance of the Knights (from his ballet of Romeo & Juliet) rolled out of the speakers to meet us.
But here is an issue. In such a large setting in the middle of a noisy city-centre and next to a busy road, the Orchestra required the help of amplification. This has, of course, annoyed purists in the past, and I can see why, having finally experienced it: much of the richness and depth of the orchestral timbres is rendered harsh and unbalanced via the public address system speakers. Admittedly, this improved in the second half to the point at which it was barely noticeable. Presumably the soundman refined the levels over and over throughout the concert. But it was a shame, I thought, that the best part of the programme was affected in this way.
Next there came to the stage the brilliant tenor Rafael Rojas, described as an Opera North favourite, and justly so, since his singing was a joy. He sang Vesti la giubba and La donna è mobile in flawless and beautiful Italian, and his presence on stage made true highlights of the concert. I just wish I could have heard him sing rarer (in every sense of the word) arias, although Vesti la giubba is always delightful. The half came to a close with Ponchielli’s half-enjoyable, half-annoying Dance of the Hours (from La Gioconda) and Enescu’s first Romanian Rhapsody (although during the latter the rain became so bad, no one listened, concentrating instead on cowering from this natural colossus).
The second half began with an amusing faux pas. Mark Forrest, the compere for the evening, introduced Ravel’s Boléro, only to find after the big introduction that conductor Renato Balsadonna had not yet returned to Millennium Square from the interim. Amusingly, the orchestra started anyway, only to have Balsadonna enter the stage roughly a minute into the performance with very amusing gestures of pretend annoyance, which showcased his wonderful panache for visual comedy.
The second half concentrated on pieces that hardly held the interest—Dvorák’s Largo from The New World Symphony, the most overplayed excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s ballets, Khachaturian’s wearisome Sabre Dance—but arrived in its final stages at some pieces that were truly spellbinding. Puccini’s E lucevan le stelle, sung again by the wonderful Rafael Rojas and Debussy’s Clair de lune (which though overplayed was pleasant to hear in a rich orchestration rather than on piano) were very special.
Unfortunately, the evening dipped at the end, to my mind, by playing the two most overplayed pieces from Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite (although the first movement, Morning, is very fine), J. Strauss II’s Blue Danube Waltz, and, as encore, Nessun dorma, sung (again) by Rojas, to universal and well deserved applause. Although there was plenty of tedium in this half, the plus-one and I ameliorated this to our pleasure with a £3 cone of chips from the Greek Street Food stall (I had had no idea that even chips were owed to us by Greek culture), to which I added the curious pleasure of a £2 cup of PG Tips. With food prices like those, who needs any other?
All in all, an amusing, occasionally moving, and occasionally frustrating evening. The event was clearly popular and well received, and I am sure it will become a pleasant annual tradition, as Opera North seems to be aiming for. Although indifferent to this prospect, I hope this concession to popularity does help to promote a widespread interest in Opera North’s more interesting theatrical work.
Charles covers culture vulture and music, specialising in classical. He is co-author of Synkronos, published in September 2017.