I’d heard so much about Leeds-based company Opera North before attending one of their productions, that I forgot this was actually my first opera – ever. In a sea of fur coats and suited gents shouting ‘brava!’ I wondered whether they could make it accessible to me.
Part of their current season, this double bill – Puccini’s Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica – proved the perfect introduction to the art form for an opera newbie in that both shows were only one act each. Both were brimming with the attributes one hears so much about and anticipates so greatly; drama, affairs of the heart, murder and the longing for forbidden love, if you plan on seeing the production when it moves to Salford, Nottingham or Edinburgh, you’re in for quite a treat.
Il Tabarro began the night’s performances. Set on a docked barge, we are introduced to Michele, his wife Giorgetta and a band of men who work for them. We soon learn that Giorgetta and worker Luigi are in the throes of a passionate affair, one that has not gone unnoticed by Michele. Luigi tells Michele that he wishes to leave the barge, but Michele persuades him to stay. When he learns of Luigi’s reasoning, that he can no longer bear the thought of sharing her with someone else, he seizes Michele and forces him to confess – resulting in Michele gruesomely murdering his love rival and hiding his body beneath his cloak. Giorgetta, after being reminded of the love she has for her husband, returns to Luigi and begs to be enfolded once more in his cloak. Luigi then opens the garment to reveal her lover’s corpse.
Ivan Inverardi and Giselle Allen are a dynamic match as Michele and Giorgetta. He is brooding and overbearing from the start, whereas her vulnerability and longing to be loved is the perfect contradiction. David Butt Philip brings great masculinity to his role as Luigi and anchors the piece, flitting between interaction with the other two. All three, along with the rest of the company, deliver stunning vocal performances – the beautiful singing heightens the eerie setting of the barge further, especially during the dance scene at the beginning of the piece. The finale atop of the boat is menacing and upsetting in equal measure and the grand reveal of Luigi’s dead body by Michele is everything you would expect from the piece – high drama, personified.
Suor Angelica takes us on a more traditional journey. Set in a convent, Sister Angelica is in inner turmoil over the child she gave up years earlier. She wishes for nothing more than news from home, which she finally gets from visiting aunt, the Princess. She has come to inform Angelica that her sister is to be married and also, with reluctance, reveals that the child Angelica gave up has died. Alone and devastated, she prepares a fatal potion and as she takes her own life, she prays for mercy.
In my opinion the superior of the two pieces, Suor Angelica was stunning. Made up of an all-female company, led fiercely by Anne-Sophie Duprels, it felt more like what I was expecting from my first foray into opera. Duprels’ innocence at the beginning, followed by her strength, or arguably weakness, as she kills herself had me in her grip throughout. The finale, as she walks naked towards her child in heaven, was emotional if a somewhat bizarrely modern contrast to the otherwise simplistic production. Soraya Mafi as Sister Genoveva and Louise Collett as the Monitor Sister were other standouts, although the whole cavalry of nuns could not be faulted. Like in Il Tabarro, the convent setting was used sufficiently and provided context for the stripped back simplicity of the nuns’ existence.
Conducted by Jac Van Steen and Anthony Kraus, the orchestra was lovely, although I wish I could have heard them a little clearer. They seemed somewhat restrained and therefore didn’t fill the entire theatre like one would expect from such a large band.
Opera North has made a new fan in me. Murder, love triangles and nuns in despair – what’s not to like? Add to that a gaggle of homegrown performers, as well as fantastic international talent, and you have an irresistible show. By the end, I found myself wanting to join in with the chorus of ‘brava!’ and next time, I think I just might. (Editor’s note: no fur coat needed.)
Opera North will continue their season in Salford, Nottingham and Edinburgh. For tickets and more details, click here