Orchestra: Orchestra of Opera North
Choirs: Chorus of Opera North
Opera North Youth Chorus
Opera North Young Voices
Conductor: Garry Walker
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Besides superb musical standards in a variety of forms and innovative stage productions, one of the main reasons for Opera North’s huge success – in and out of the opera house – is that the company knows how to put on a programme, be it a single event or a whole season, how to get an audience on board without resorting to the obvious. The annual Christmas Concert at Dewsbury Town Hall maintained, and in one case surpassed, expected musical standards, but was a rare lapse in quality of programming.
One aspect of programming that worked very well was the intention to showcase all the different ensembles in the Opera North set-up. The Youth Ensembles have become an ever-more significant element within the company and, trained by Youth Chorus Master Nicholas Shaw, the Youth Chorus and Young Voices – taken together, ages 12-19 – delivered a wonderful performance of Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, with Celine Saout’s sensitive and balanced harp accompaniment, as the first half of the concert.
The piece was written during the Second World War and in it Britten harked back mainly to Middle English texts, some quite familiar, such as “Adam lay ibounden” and the beautiful “I sing of a maiden that is makeles”, but the emotional heart of the sequence lies with two settings by the Elizabethan Jesuit/poet/martyr, Robert Southwell, celebrating “the Babe” with fervent mysticism. The settings of the two are very different, “This Little Babe” boldly assertive, the harp building momentum like a strummed guitar, “In Freezing Winter Night” more introspective. The Youth Ensembles were totally assured in both.
As anyone who has seen Noyes Fludde knows, Benjamin Britten loved a good processional and A Ceremony uses the Latin hymn, “Hodie Christus natus est” to get the choir on an off. This, handled with a sure sense of drama at Opera North, made for a striking opening, the chorus processing through the hall singing unaccompanied to join Saout and Garry Walker on stage for “Wolcum Yole!”. A word, too, for the soloists, all excellent, the duet on “Spring Carol” a special delight.
A Ceremony of Carols lasted half an hour – fair enough to take the interval there because of the need to rearrange the stage for the orchestra, but the second half needed something substantial to fill the evening. It didn’t get it, and at 95 minutes, including interval, the concert was decidedly on the short side.
Carols have always been a key part of the Dewsbury Christmas Concert, but this time they took over. Garry Walker, a fine conductor and an engaging personality, didn’t seem quite au fait with how to involve the audience in the singing, but the orchestra and the main Chorus came together in some rousing performances, notably the final roof-lifting “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”.
The Chorus’ own features were nearly all unaccompanied and the performances were precise and beautifully integrated, notably in the late John Tavener’s ethereal setting of Blake’s “The Lamb”. “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, full of comical elaboration, passed the test of the old variety comedians: it made the band laugh!
And what of the band? The Orchestra of Opera North, always a good reason for going to a concert, had a 10 or 15-minute spot to play – brilliantly, of course – extracts from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. They seemed to pour all their energy into a coruscating Trepak.
And at 8.35, surely there was time for an encore.
Reviewed on December 20, 2018 | Image: Contributed