I will always be extremely grateful to my parents for teaching me never to approach anything with a closed mind. Using their theory of trying everything before I decide whether I like it or not has got me into trouble a few times but has also given me a very full life. I will also always be extremely grateful to Leeds Living for giving me the opportunity to try things which I otherwise would not have been able to do.
Such an example was the opening night of ‘The Little Greats’, a season of short operas staged at the wonderful Grand Theatre by Opera North. There are six productions in all, each lasting about an hour, and are presented in pairs. The aim is to appeal not only to the aficionado, as these are bona fide works performed to a high professional standard, but also the opera virgin who can try one, or both, without committing to a three hour marathon. I most certainly do not fall into the former category, neither do I come under the second as I lost my opera cherry to ‘Rigoletto’ in Bradford several years ago but that was my only dalliance, honest. I do have a bit of form when it comes to this art form as one of my uncles used to sing arias in working men’s clubs in the 1950s although I didn’t realise this until it was revealed in the eulogy at his funeral by which time it was obviously a bit late to catch a performance. Not wishing to waste a journey into Leeds I opted to watch both operas and I am so pleased that I did.
The first cab off the rank was ‘Pagliacci’ which is Italian for clowns and was written by Ruggero Leoncavallo. It is a tale of jealousy, infidelity, violence and revenge so something for everybody. It was first performed in 1892 but this version is set in the present day, I surmised this by the presence of a microwave oven on stage and one of the characters carrying a Sainsbury’s bag for life. The character in question, Tonio, sang the prologue in front of the curtain comprising a huge group photograph of the Opera North performers and staff. The prologue was sung in English but once the curtain rose and the action began the language changed to original Italian. Don’t worry, there were electronic screens situated in two of the stageside boxes which translated the libretto into English. This had also been updated as I doubt that many 19th Century Italians said ‘They are all down the pub’, or, ‘You reckon?’
The story concerns a group of luvvies who have arrived in a town to stage a play about, you guessed it, clowns. The action of the play mirrors that of the private lives of the actors in that Nedda, the wife of the principal actor/director Canio, is having a bit of extramarital with the company’s conductor Silvio and they are planning to run off together after the show. To complicate things the play’s designer, Tonio – yes, the same one who delivered the prologue – has the hots for Nedda but once she makes it clear to him that the feeling is far from mutual he tells Canio that she is playing away. In the play Nedda is being unfaithful to Canio the clown which is supposed to be a comedic device but when Canio the clown appears on the stage having had a few bevvies to numb the pain of his real predicament, the mood changes to suspense as he threatens his wife with a knife in order to force her to reveal the name of her lover. She refuses so he follows through with the threat. Silvio’s reaction gives him away as being the third party in the triangle so Canio disposes of him in the same manner.
As you will have gathered this is a lot of story to cram into an hour and a bit but it was wonderfully done. The singing, as you would expect, was exemplary and special mention must be given to Richard Burkhard as Tonio, Elin Pritchard who sang Nedda, Peter Auty’s Canio and especially the Chorus of Opera North who were magnificent as was the orchestra conducted by Tobias Ringborg. The director, Charles Edwards along with his designers and directors brought the whole piece to life. There were two instances which spring to mind; firstly a set piece involving the microwave in the play, and the way in which Nedda used the Punch and Judy-like booth in which the set for the play had been mocked up to convey her angst by standing with her back to it and putting her arms through the sides to simulate a crucifix. If I have one criticism, and it is only a small one, it concerns Elin Pritchard whose singing is amazing but she needs to do a bit of work on her erotic writhing. She is without doubt a good-looking woman but perhaps a tad too wholesome for some of the opera moves, the ones in the play were fine.
‘Pagliacci’ is usually paired with ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ whose theme is fairly similar and indeed they are teamed up in this season on a later date. The second offering tonight though could not have been more different. It was the rarely performed ‘L’enfant et les Sortileges’ (The Child and the Spells) music by Claude Ravel and libretto by Colette. Whereas ‘Pagliacci’ is a classic Italian work L’infant is part opera and part dance, the music is a little more avant garde and the characters weirder.
It was first performed in 1925. The story is that of a young mischievous boy who is disobedient to his mother, cruel to animals, disrespectful of his surroundings and possessions – in fact a real little (expletive deleted). The action begins when he refuses to do his homework and is confined to his room by his mother who gets a choice mouthful of abuse for her troubles. When in his room he proceeds to wreck it and destroy everything within. There follows a series of scenes in which the items he has trashed come to life to wreak their revenge. Some of the set pieces were amusing such as when the teapot and cups come to life, the two pink oversize cups being held to the female singer’s chest and the very large teapot spout emanating from the male’s crotch. The crockery singers also represent the chair and the armchair and wear costumes made from the same material as the respective items of furniture. The singing and dancing of these set pieces are, I am told, in the French Absurdist style.
Other scenes were black as night, especially in the denouement when the boy ventures outside and is cornered by the animals to which he has been cruel and the tree into which he has carved, thus releasing the sap causing it to die. All ends well for the boy when the squirrel gets hurt in the rush to attack the boy who takes a piece of cloth and bandages the wound. He then is injured himself and calls for his mother. The animals, being unable to dress his wound in return, join in the cry for his mother who appears by casting off her squirrel costume. Personally I would have left the little horror to his fate. Just as well I never had kids.
There are too many performers to list but all were excellent as again was the orchestra, this time conducted by Martin Andre. The one person I must pick out though is Wallis Giunta who played the Child. She was on stage the whole time singing and dancing, doing both impeccably. The child is referred to as a boy throughout and Ms Giunta is female but I suppose that in these days of gender fluidity there is nothing wrong with that. The direction, choreography, costumes and sets were superb. The libretto was in French but the electronic screens once again provided the translation.
I cannot recommend these operas highly enough and would urge anyone who has seen the Three Tenors or heard an opera tune that they like but didn’t think that they could sit through a whole production to give one of them a go. After all, it is only for an hour and has to be better than sixty minutes watching The One Show followed by Eastenders. If you do opt for one to try I would suggest ‘Pagliacci’ as it is the more accessible of the two and you will be familiar with the main musical theme. I would also recommend that should you suffer from even mild paranoia you don’t get one of the boxes in the circle next to the stage as you will feel the eyes of the whole audience trained on you, or rather the screen displaying the translation.