Composer: Henry Purcell
Director and adaptor: Sir David Pountney
Choreographer: Denni Sayers
Jukebox musicals, featuring songs from existing sources rather than original music, have been around for some time but a jukebox opera is a new development.
17th century composer Henry Purcell, whose works are showcased in Masque of Might, wrote music for theatrical productions or ceremonial occasions rather than continuous scores such as operas. Sir David Pountney, who directs the opera, has adapted the short pieces into a narrative to become an eco-entertainment. Not only does the subject matter relate to the environment, the concept of recycling established pieces to create a new entertainment is in accord with Opera North’s current ‘Green Season’.
Tyrant Diktat (Callum Thorpe) believes might makes right and does not tolerate dissent. He refuses to acknowledge the adverse impact humankind has upon the environment preferring to appease his ego with macho stunts involving hunting boars. Climate activists are imprisoned and forced to submit to Diktat’s opinions. But a growing conspiracy prompts nature to revolt against the dictator and brings hope of change.
Sir David Pountney stages the opera in manner common to Purcell’s period- a masque, incorporating elements of theatre, dance and music. Half a dozen dancers move in a stylised sinister manner as the dictator’s attack dogs or as funeral mourners. Denni Sayers’s choreography is not limited to the formal dancers, the entire Opera North chorus forms a grotesque group of cheerleaders forced to celebrate the achievements of the dictator.
The production has a larger-than life atmosphere bordering on satire. At one point Callum Thorpe appears bare-chested in the manner of Vladimir Putin. His henchmen wear clown whiteface while they cheerfully torture prisoners. David Haneke’s video designs turn the rear wall of the stage into starscapes and ravaged forests but the most effective is an opulent ballroom complete with massive chandeliers in which the dictator squats like a malevolent spider on a throne made from broken furniture.
Callum Thorpe’s base vocals are perfect for a villain- you could close your eyes and know he is up to no good purely by his rumbling tone. A limitation is, however, the Baroque nature of the music. Dominated by the harpsichord the score lacks drama being sedate and more suitable for courtly presentations than high passion. Despite the fine vocals of the cast, it feels like they are straining against material that does not lend itself to roaring emotions.
Masque of Might is a fascinating experiment. A practical demonstration of Opera North’s commitment to Green Issues featuring costumes made from existing fabrics or bought second hand and utilising discarded toys and plastic bottles as props. More significantly the recycling of Henry Purcell’s music raises awareness not only of environmental issues but of a composer whose works are not currently as well-known as they deserve.
16th November, 2023