Conductor: Martin Pickard
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Opera North has built a strong relationship with the Kirklees public through its excellent series of concerts in association with Kirklees Council. Its sell-out Christmas celebration at Dewsbury Town Hall was, it seemed, a successful attempt at showcasing every element of the company short of staging an opera. An extended work for strings began the evening; various pieces in the second half gave prominence in turn to woodwind, brass and percussion; the Chorus of Opera North got the chance to demonstrate their talents a cappella; the company’s Children’s Chorus and Youth Chorus were prominently featured. And of course, the audience had a bit of a sing.
The first half consisted of two works for very different forces. Corelli’s Concerto Grosso Opus 6, No. 8 is known as the “Christmas” Concerto on the strength of one movement, its last, an evocative Pastorale which may (or may not) be intended to represent the angels hovering over Bethlehem. Whatever its Christmas credentials, it is one of the most serenely beautiful movements of the Baroque period and the Opera North strings, led from the violin by David Greed, treated the whole concerto with appropriately elegant restraint and (when required) vigour.
This was followed by the Manchester Carols – or, at least, some of them. These settings of Carol Ann Duffy’s words by Sasha Johnson Manning were first performed in 2007 and were noticed both for their accessibility and the fact that the words were written by an unbeliever. This latter proved no problem: Duffy happily conveyed the magic of the Christmas story while avoiding references to the specifically Christian elements in that magic. The Trees proved a particularly moving take on the Nativity: tree carols have a distinguished history and in this one, Joseph the carpenter traced Jesus’ story in the wood of the trees.
Manning’s music is not afraid to borrow and the opening and closing Mirabile Dictu had the energy and freshness of a medieval carol. With Martin Pickard now conducting, all three choruses took their chances to shine, with particular praise for the excellent Children’s Chorus and for Sarah Estill, taking over the soprano solo at short notice. The full set of Manchester Carols consists of 16; certainly Manning and Duffy’s work had sufficient depth and variety to sustain a performance of eight of them.
The second half consisted of shorter works, mostly with a Russian flavour, interspersed with carols for choirs and audience in arrangements by the late Sir David Willcocks. Thus, we had a chorister of the Children’s Chorus coping splendidly with the unaccompanied first verse of Once in Royal David’s City and all forces massing in a stirring finale with O Come All Ye Faithful.
The Prelude to Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel provided an appetiser for next season with the news that Opera North is hoping to schedule this wonderful opera. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Snow Maiden Suite introduced the Russian element with exotic scoring for woodwind and bounced brassily into the Dance of the Tumblers. Tchaikovsky’s mysteriously beautiful Legend foregrounded the unaccompanied Chorus and the children returned to great, if wordless, effect for the Waltz of the Snowflakes. And then, the sleigh bells rang out for Prokofiev’s exhilarating Troika from Lieutenant Kije, given an appropriately satirical edge by Martin Pickard.
Reviewed on 17 December | Image: Contributed