Director: Elizabeth Freestone
Conductor: Helen Harrison
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
The Northern Opera Group is never afraid to take on the unusual in its pleasingly varied small-scale festival, the Leeds Opera Festival. This year the theme was Shakespeare, but not in anything like a predictable way. The major production, Stanford’s Much Ado about Nothing, while short of a masterpiece, was certainly good enough to raise the question of why there are so few operas on Shakespearean comedies, Merry Wives of Windsor excepted. Whilst on that subject, the Festival also featured the Falstaff operas, appropriately linked to a feast.
In A Feast of Falstaff and the final performance, Musical Confusion, the Festival organisers commendably made the plays, not just the operatic adaptations, part of the programme, with a showing of Orson Welles’ Falstaff film, The Chimes at Midnight, as the climax to the feast and the linking together of plays and operas in Musical Confusion.
However, the end-product didn’t justify the claim that “we explore the 400-year history of the Bard on the musical stage”. It was ingenious and attractive enough, but, at 50 minutes, slight, sometimes predictable, though with occasional telling insights.
The simple performance style saw two singers and two actors, in anonymous modern dress, act and sing extracts from Shakespeare’s plays and operas based on them on a bare stage, with Helen Harrison’s keyboards upstage centre. Occasional forays into the recesses of the Lower Hall at Leeds Town Hall generally worked well, but staging and grouping seldom excited.
The script – presumably by Elizabeth Freestone – made its links cleverly, from Brush Up Your Shakespeare into Petruchio and Kate and then into Romeo and Juliet. The story of the Verona teenagers rushed from balcony scene to double suicide twice, with Gounod’s “L’amour, l’amour…” breaking in effectively on the dialogue of the balcony scene. Ben Addis and Rachel Leskovac acted the roles with intelligence and some involvement, and tenor Michael Vincent Jones and soprano Juliet Montgomery brought intensity and commitment to the music, but, whether or not because of failure to judge the acoustic in the low-ceilinged hall, he was sometimes unpleasantly strident. A little hint of “Somewhere” from West Side Story reminded us of what a gloriously emotional melody that is.
The best of the evening followed a decidedly corny change-over. Juliet, clutching a dagger, wondered what to do and the question, “Is this a dagger?” was inevitable – and so we were off into Macbeth. A side-by-side presentation of two Lady Macbeths worked well, Montgomery powerfully seized the moment as Verdi’s evil queen, well supported by Jones, and all became much more dramatically involving.
Finally, we segued into A Midsummer Night’s Dream and those words shared by Shakespeare and Benjamin Britten: “If we shadows have offended….” No such thing – offended indeed! – but it would have been nice to have stimulated us a bit more!
Reviewed on August 27, 2019 | Image: Pelly & Me Photography