Composer: Thomas Arne
Librettists: David Mallett, James Thomson
Director: David Ward
Conductor: Christopher Pelly
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
The first Left Bank Opera Festival consists of three opera performances on the theme of Great British Opera, plus a network of supporting free events, held in the splendidly spacious converted church in Burley which operates as Left Bank Leeds. The festival is the work of Northern Opera Group which specialises in “works outside of the core repertoire”. Judging from the quality of the performance of Alfred, the attendance and the enthusiastic response, the Left Bank Opera Festival should become an annual event.
Thomas Arne is worth a good deal more attention than he gets from opera and concert programmers. He was a dominant figure in English music at a time when we apparently believed only foreigners “did” music. Opera meant Handel and the Italian opera; later in the 18th century the “London symphonies” were not the work of an Englishman, but the crowning glory of Joseph Haydn’s career as an orchestral composer. Haydn apparently was hugely impressed by Arne’s Ataxerxes, reputedly the only opera seria to an English text. But, while his almost exact contemporary William Boyce’s charming symphonies are a staple of Classic FM, Arne is underperformed.
Thus Northern Opera Group’s choice of Alfred is to be strongly applauded, though it doesn’t make a totally happy transition to the modern stage. Alfred was initially a masque, with all the spectacle that implies, but evolved into a full-scale all-sung opera. That, by and large, is the form used by Northern Opera, though the largely informative spoken dialogue, with limited character interaction, feels like a 21st Century linking device.
The lack of interaction shows in Arne’s music, with very few ensemble numbers. Some of the music calls to mind Purcell’s wonderful Vision of England in King Arthur, a semi-opera, that strange English hybrid; other numbers are full-blown Italianate da capo arias. All of it is attractive; not all of it is memorable.
The spirit of Old England underlies the slanting of the plot towards the sturdy yeoman; the setting is the cottage of Corin and Emma on the Isle of Athelney. Alfred (incognito) is in hiding there. His wife and son, Eltruda and Edward, come looking for him and thereafter the plot is little more than a series of recognition scenes, reports on troop movements, expressions of national pride and agonising over the human cost of war before Arthur and Edward emerge triumphant.
Under David Ward’s direction, the performance makes imaginative use of the immense hall space, with audience seating all around on three sides. No furniture, almost no props, but the audience is involved by the immediate presence of the singers before, between, even behind the seats.
Characterisation is limited, but all five characters are well sung. Catrin Woodruff (Eltruda) is outstanding: given the arias that carry the main emotional heft, she sings them with dramatic intensity. William Wallace, a not very regal Alfred, brings a rich and nuanced tenor to the part and both he and Woodruff make the most of the opera’s “hit song”, Rule Britannia, bringing the evening to a close with a heady mix of patriotic fervour and baroque ornamentation. Joe Bolger’s counter-tenor soars as Edward, though a touch more military crispness would help; Helen Stanley’s boldness of attack as Emma demands attention; Corin is admirably served by the clean lines of William Branston’s tenor.
Christopher Pelly has the unenviable task of holding together an opera performance behind his back while infusing his 12-piece orchestra with baroque style. He does it all pretty well, even when trumpets and percussion come barging in for a rather woolly, but very exciting, conclusion.
Runs until 30 August 2017 | Image: Mark Webster Photography