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Pagliacci/L’enfant et les sortilèges, Opera North review - off and on with the motley | reviews, news & interviews

Pagliacci/L’enfant et les sortilèges, Opera North review - off and on with the motley

Pagliacci/L’enfant et les sortilèges, Opera North review - off and on with the motley

Masterpieces by Leoncavallo and Ravel launch a season of one-acters in style

Wallis Giunta as Ravel's Child and Fflur Wyn as the PrincessAll images by Tristram Kenton

The first two one-acters in Opera North’s season called The Little Greats were unveiled on Saturday. There are six in all, scheduled on a mix-and-match basis so Leeds opera-goers can choose their own tapas menu: grab one show, choose from various pairs, or even try three on a Saturday (including a matinee) if you want to.

Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges were both originally slated to be conducted by Aleksandar Markovic when he was the company’s music director. But the entire enterprise is the most thoroughgoing example yet of its ensemble philosophy, with principal singers in one production popping up in support roles in another and chorus members frequently stepping into the limelight. It seems only natural that Tobias Ringborg, already part of the season’s conducting team, has stepped up to the rostrum for Pagliacci while Martin André takes over L’Enfant.

Peter Auty as Canio in PagliacciSet and lighting design for all six productions is by Charles Edwards, and there will be a front cloth at each performance showing the assembled team – directors, performers, chorus and all – in a group photograph. Edwards is also director of Pagliacci, and he has used the picture in his reinterpretation of the classic story of “strolling players”, picking up on the idea of the company in rehearsal. In this version the performers are themselves. Concept photos of the other operas in the series are visible on the walls of the rehearsal space, and the chorus are first heard sitting down rehearsing their notes. Props that will recur in other Little Greats shows (notably the grandfather clock for L’Enfant et les Sortilèges) are simply lying around.

So it’s not so much “On with the motley” as off with it, most of the time – though Peter Auty, as Canio, gets to wear the clown’s face-paint and wig for the final run-through (pictured right). Nedda (Elin Pritchard) is having an affair with the conductor, Silvio (Phillip Rhodes).

It all begins with Tonio (Richard Burkhard) giving the prologue, suitably adapted, in English (“You’ll see a company rehearsing an opera”), though the story itself is sung in Italian – until the famous final line, as Tonio reverts to English to shout that “The performance is over”.

It all works remarkably well and is almost a motto piece for the entire series (though I hope this verismo does not extend to real stabbings behind the scenes in the Grand Theatre). Peter Auty plays Canio with focussed, obsessive intensity, his timbre equal to the demands of Leoncavallo’s fin-de-siècle lushness, though occasionally a little thin at the very top. Pritchard (pictured below with Auty) is a feisty lady and sings Nedda with beauty as well as conviction.Final scene from Opera North PagliacciRichard Burkhard, ever a pleasure to hear, makes a remarkable baddy (he earned panto-style boos at the end) precisely because he’s not a hunchback caricature, but someone you can believe in. Phillip Rhodes refrains from any digs at power-crazed maestri in his acting – if anything, he’s the straight guy here, just plain lustful – and balances his colleagues in vocal power. And Joseph Shovelton makes Beppe a contrasting cheeky-chappy cameo.

Annabel Arden directs L’Enfant et les Sortilèges in a manner that, like her other best work for Opera North, is faithful to the score and the book but full of imaginative touches. Of course the Child (Wallis Giunta – an inspired piece of casting, pictured below being harassed by Arithmetic) has his hand-held electronic device to engage his attention at the outset, rather than listen to his Mother (Ann Taylor): what youngster today wouldn’t? A gifted cast round up the other roles – Fflur Wyn, Quirijn de Lang, Katie Bray, John Graham Hall, John Savournin, Lorna James, Kathryn Walker, Victoria Sharp, Rachel J Mosley and Ann Taylor herself – the sort of team only an ensemble enterprise of this kind could provide for Ravel’s 45-minute fantasy.Scene from L'enfant et les sortilegesIt’s definitely on with the motley in the costume department (Hannah Clark the designer) as chairs, teapot, fire, wallpaper figures, cats, squirrel, storybook princess and the rest all come to life, following Colette’s delicious libretto. The story, with its hints at adolescent awakenings alongside dawning awareness of the need to help one’s fellow creatures as a child grows up, has been interpreted in deep and subtle ways before, but in Arden’s version it retains an innocence that’s wholly appropriate, and on the first night won much laughter from its post-interval audience.

Musically it was enchanting to hear, the Orchestra of Opera North exchanging the gutsy passion they’d given Ringborg in Pagliacci for a gentler, more whimsical soundworld for L’Enfant under André. Together they made an auspicious beginning for a season that could be even better than the previous Little Greats festival back in 2004.

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