Orchestra: Orchestra of Opera North
Conductors: Jessica Cottis/James Holmes
Soloists: Jeni Bern (soprano)/Quirijn de Lang (baritone)
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
A Night at the Opera, the second event of the three-night Opera North in the City Festival, showed once again the canniness of the company’s programming. The evening was not perfect: the orchestral sound conjured up for the outdoor performance was not always well balanced, there was a lack of subtlety at times, the sounds of the city (notably a busy helicopter) were a periodic disturbance – not Opera North’s fault, of course – but the programming, as ever, was perfectly judged.
To start with the principals, Jeni Bern and Quirin de Lang were the ideal choice: both accomplished opera singers, both with major Mozart and Britten roles behind them at Opera North, both gloriously at home in the world of the classic musicals, as their recent partnership in Kiss Me Kate showed. The choice of young Australian conductor, Jessica Cottis, was slightly surprising, but her energetic, driving, occasionally frenetic conducting was well suited to keeping the audience’s attention away from the next pint or that menacing cloud above Millennium Square. And for the musicals, who better to conduct than James Holmes who has probably helmed more Broadway shows in British opera houses than anyone else?
The first half was devoted to opera, beginning and ending with two great overtures, Glinka’s exhilarating Ruslan and Lyudmila, the well-spring of Russian opera (when are we going to see the opera?) and Cottis’ thrilling account of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, a terrifying explosion of power that put the helicopter to flight. In a nicely contrasted first half, the programmers planted reminders of Opera North’s Autumn programme (Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci) alongside trusted operatic favourites in which Bern and de Lang excelled, she in a pure-toned and affecting Un bel di from Madama Butterfly, he in the mock-heroic self-glorification of the Toreador’s Song. The most impressive vocal performance of the first half, however, was Jeni Bern’s faultless Song to the Moon from Rusalka, totally unfazed by being buzzed by the low-flying helicopter.
The orchestra’s versatility showed after the interval with James Holmes nonchalantly letting loose a burst of Broadway pizazz with Another Opening Another Overture, Graham Hall’s reworking of a familiar bit of Cole Porter stuffed with musical quotations. De Lang and Bern proved more than adept at involving the audience and “selling” the songs in a second half which was a judicious mix of old favourites and little-known gems. De Lang seemed to get most of the familiar ones, an exuberant Where is the Life from Kiss Me Kate and a sensitive reading of the Carousel Soliloquy the highlights. Bern’s witty and jazzy I Can Cook Too from Bernstein’s On the Town was a joy and it was wonderful to find her exhuming the music of Marc Blitzstein (I Wish it So from Juno) whose left-wing musicals caused such a furore in the 1930s.
The Gershwins’ Girl Crazy from 1930 is famous for having the best pit orchestra of all time: Red Nichols drafted in his jazz friends such as Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. So the Overture was a suitable finale for a terrific pit orchestra: the overture is only a pot pourri of tunes from the musical, but what tunes! From I Got Rhythm to Biding My Time via Embraceable You and But Not for Me….
Reviewed on 29 July 2017 | Image: Sarah Zagni