Opera North: Masque of Might at Leeds Grand Theatre, to the music of Henry Purcell

Like many of the new promotions at Ilkley’s splendid Literature Festival, this latest world’s first from Opera North was conceived and worked out under the Covid pandemic’s restrictions. Confine a creator physically, by decree if you must, but, evidently, their brain can never be held in lockdown.

Director, Sir David Pountney‘s initial approach to his salutary tale of the consequences of our environmental negligence and abuse was a desire to make use of the music of Britain’s greatest Baroque composer, Henry Purcell.

In a short life, Purcell wrote songs and incidental music for as many as 50 plays, besides sacred and purely instrumental pieces, now catalogued at nearly 1,000 entries. It did not take long, on delving into the many different far-corners of this largely-untapped body of work, for Sir David to make some remarkable extra-musical discoveries: the very texts themselves that Purcell had chosen to set, struck him now as apocalyptic visions of our current world’s climate change catastrophe, remarkable for being penned, as they were, in pre-industrial innocence:

“Beware O cursed land,
Which will not see the precipice where thou dost stand,
Though thou stand just upon the brink,
Thou of this poison’d bowl the bitter dregs shall drink.”

or this gem:

“Hark! From aloft the melting glacier falls
With noise so loud it deafs the ocean’s roar.
Alarmed, amazed, the clatt’ring shards come down.”

Anna Dennis as Elena and Andri Björn Róbertsson as Nebulous

If both the music and original texts were to be retained, he thought it reasonable to keep the very 17th-century format of the “masque” as well. Masques were theatrical entertainments, rather more variety show than Opera. Dance, spectacle and an almost intentionally chaotic disregard for consistent narrative were its hallmarks. Sir David’s thoughts turned to a suitable dramatic thread: a conflict between a villainous ruler, Diktat, the champion of climate scepticism – his modern equivalent unnamed, but inferred – and an irrepressible nemesis, a powerful female spirit to be called Elena. The supporting cast would comprise of either sycophants or sceptics. From the dark dawn of Act I’s uncertainty, deception and oppression, the forlorn hope of satisfactory closure for mankind, or, paraphrasing Oscar Wilde, for “the good ending happily and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means” – Diktat is to be driven out in an Act II finale swathed in a glorious sunset of Purcellian harmonies. What makes this production so relevant is that we remain so fatefully embroiled in our own Act I.

The result is a myriad tapestry of musical numbers, some familiar, others less so, from such disparate sources as Shakespeare adaptations, odes for royal birthdays, Old Testament and psalm settings, and The Yorkshire Feast Song.

Occasionally, new text needed to be inserted, whilst still retaining a Drydenesque metre, as in Diktat’s overtly “climate sceptic” aria:

“This talk of doom is all a hoax,
The ‘climate’ one of fashion’s jokes.
A hoax, a trick, a bare-faced lie,
False prophesies we stout defy.”

Andri Björn Róbertsson as Nebulous

Paule Constable‘s and Ben Pickersgill‘s striking opening background video of a recognisable solar system gradually settles the extra-terrestrial eye upon our planet, where Leslie Travers‘ clutter of unwanted debris – mannequins, tyres, lamp shades, a string bass! – from ON’s last production, now hovers, like space junk, over the set. Mother Earth spawns both the evil Diktat and the citizens and resources he is set to exploit.

James Hall as Strumpet Ginger, Andri Björn Róbertsson as Nebulous and James Laing as Tousel Blond

As a direct imitation of Purcell’s originally-intended tribute to the dictatorial King James II, James Laing, as Tousel Blond, and James Hall, as Strumpet Ginger, open with a joyous counter-tenor duet, Sound The Trumpet, hailing Diktat’s accession to power. The two James prove to be well-matched, their quick-thinking sequencing of vocal conversational interplay as noteworthy as their beautifully-toned delivery.

Callum Thorpe as Diktat with members of the Chorus of Opera North

Callum Thorpe, as Diktat, is a formidable villain. With perfectly enunciated diction and a bass voice to savour, he squanders precious resources to vainglorious aggrandisement, wrestles wild boar bare-chested to nurture a machismo public image and disports anti-tank missile launchers, like priapic totems, in each hand, which others then barely manage to lift. The fact that he receives an Act II admonishment from Joseph Stalin, no less, may narrow down possible role models upon which he is characterised. In a more contemplative moment, he munches quietly on a fast-food super-meal, replete with foamed polystyrene carton and one-use beaker and straw. He listens intently to a cogent, cautionary reprimand of what his rapacious exploits are doing to the environment from the emboldened eco-warrior Nebulous, masterfully sung by Icelandic bass-baritone, Andri Björn Róbertsson. Then he has him summarily tortured to death.

Andri Björn Róbertsson as Nebulous, Xavier Hetherington as Scrofulous and Matthew Brook as Sceptic with members of the Chorus of Opera North

The activist’s girlfriend, Anna Dennis‘ Elena, ends Act I delivering The Plaint, “O let me ever, ever weep”, lifted from the A Midsummer Night’s Dream off-shoot The Fairy Queen, an expressive, heartbreaking lament, a full eight minutes of doleful, aching beauty, which I am still not over. The interval drink gives time to appreciate just why it is that composers active in this country over the past three centuries, geniuses themselves, from Handel to Britten, considered Henry Purcell to be our nation’s greatest musical son.

Anna Dennis as Elena and Xavier Hetherington as Seer

Sir David takes 28 numbers to fill Act II. The message is delivered: we, collectively, will triumph, each with a contribution to make in saving the planet, but still, as much cause as solution, we are all a Diktat in our own way, deep down as culpable as he is, not by maliciously destroying our environment, rather through inactivity and lazy acquiescence. Essentially, we will put up with any regime and willingly believe any honeyed lie that promises us an easy life.

Jonny Aubrey-Bentley, Rose Ellen Lewis, Ruby Portus and Ben Yorke-Griffiths as the Masque of Might dancers

Regrettably, Act II did not need 28 numbers to achieve this. Sir David could have done with Stacey Solomon, as in Sort Your Life Out, to show him, laid out for him, plain to see, just what an excess of Purcell masterpieces he had amassed. Understandably, discarding any of them proved an unconscionable undertaking.

Anna Dennis as Witch

Baroque-specialist, conductor Harry Bicket controlled the music’s direction with purpose, sympathy and understanding; the appropriately pared-down orchestra, reduced strings, minimal winds, theorbo and harpsichord, obviously enjoyed the evening. Pleasingly, despite the modern context in which it found itself, the musical convention, which Purcell would have recognised, of allowing the vocalists the freedom to ornament repeated passages, was observed.

Sung in English, with English titles.

Further performances take place at Leeds Grand Theatre on Saturday 21 October at 2 p.m. and Friday 27 October at 7 p.m, then touring Newcastle, Nottingham, Salford Quays until 16 November.

Main image:

Opera North’s production of Masque of Might Members of the Chorus of Opera North.

Conductor Harry Bicket, Director Sir David Pountney, Set Designer Leslie Travers, Costume Designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca, Lighting Designers Paule Constable/ Ben Pickersgill, Video Designer David Haneke, Choreographer Denni Sayers

Photography by James Glossop

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