ConcertMusicNorth East & YorkshireReview

The Orchestra of Opera North: Viennese Whirl – Huddersfield Town Hall

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Conductor: Nil Venditti

The planners at Opera North have a knack of programming concerts that are intelligently balanced and (in many cases) a mix of the familiar and the unexpected whilst remaining thoroughly accessible. However, this knack was little in evidence in the first half of an otherwise excellent concert at Huddersfield, to be repeated on New Year’s Eve at Hull.

The decision to extend the programme beyond the old firm of Strauss, Strauss, Strauss and Lehar was, in itself, welcome, but it left the first half bereft of the traditional Viennese spirit. Things began splendidly with two pieces by Johann Strauss the Younger. The young Italian-Turkish conductor, Nil Venditti, brought the required rhythmic flexibility to Voices of Spring and one of those Polkas Schnell that make you expect gun shots or explosions every few bars. Those noisy boys at the back (horns, brass and percussion), given their head by Venditti, did everything required – and more.

But over half of a fairly short first set (40 minutes, including Venditti’s enthusiastically expressive introductions) was given over to a series of Contradances by Mozart and Mahler’s Ruckert Lieder, both Viennese and entitled to their place, but, placed together, taking the steam out of the programme.

The Contradances, stately, stylish and short (the first a delightful re-working of Non piu andrai from The Marriage of Figaro), needed to be followed by something more substantial and dynamic. Instead the Ruckert Lieder brought emotional intensity. After a subdued opening Maire Flavin soared superbly on Um Mitternacht and followed it with a beautifully hushed Ich bin der Welt…  (exquisite cor anglais). Worth a place in any concert programme, but not the thing to send a New Year’s celebration audience to the bar in festive mood: “That was a barrel of laughs”, grumbled one disgruntled punter.

The second half was a delight – and on traditional lines, except for Richard Rodgers’ Carousel Waltz, the orchestra full of Hollywood opulence in an extended concert version. Venditti obtained sparkling performances of a series of Strauss favourites (a special commendation for the woodwind in Perpetuum Mobile) and Flavin delivered Lehar songs with the poise, theatricality and ringing upper register of a former Opera North Hanna Glawari in The Merry Widow. She encored on My Fair Lady, the orchestra on Tritsch Tratsch Polka and somehow The Radetsky March stayed unplayed – the Strauss family was represented only by Johann the Younger, no sign of his father or brother.

There was so much to enjoy and admire – the orchestra in fine form, despite a number of unfamiliar faces (not surprising, given how things are) and a dynamic conductor clearly at one with the musicians – but the programme would have benefited from the odd tweak.

Reviewed on December 30th 2021

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