Pole position

5 October 2017

2:00 PM

5 October 2017

2:00 PM

Did you know that they used to make the Fiat 126 in the Eastern bloc? They did, apparently. There was a plant at Bielsko-Biala, and the car was widely driven throughout Poland in the 1970s, when you only had to wait a couple of years to buy one. It became an emblem of personal freedom, and Poles even gave it a nickname: Maluch, or ‘little one’.

That’s the principal insight that I gleaned from director Karolina Sofulak’s decision to set Cavalleria rusticana in communist Poland. She explains her thinking in the programme book: essentially, 19th-century Sicily was Catholic and repressive, and 1970s Poland was Catholic and repressive, so why not? Cue the latest one-size-fits-all operatic design cliché — fastidiously rendered depictions of 1970s squalor. In recent seasons I’ve seen the same basic combination of nylon, stained walls and greasy hair applied to Bellini, Humperdinck and Stephen Sondheim. Charles Edwards’s sets and Gabrielle Dalton’s costumes are in the best tradition of the genre, even down to the eyestrain-inducing lighting, which at times made it impossible to see anyone’s face properly.

On the other hand, Alfio’s little red Fiat stole the show every time it trundled into Mamma Lucia’s sausage shop (this is one of those stagings where religious processions take place in someone’s living room). It might seem harsh to say that the car upstaged both the male leads, but neither Phillip Rhodes’s blustery Alfio nor Jonathan Stoughton’s pale-voiced but lyrical Turiddù gave you much to root for. Characters and relationships were barely sketched in. The cast stalked portentously about the stage, pressing themselves against walls, and Santuzza (Giselle Allen) performed a creepy mock-crucifixion on Turiddù during the Easter Hymn.

Allen was unquestionably the star of the night, with a faintly maniacal demeanour of clenched purity and a voice that was by turns searing and tremulous — though Rosalind Plowright brought a brooding dignity to Lucia, even while perched impassively at the side of the action dressed as Dot Cotton. The conductor, Tobias Ringborg, did lovely things with the brief moments of delicacy between Mascagni’s raw splashes of colour. Overall, though, this punishingly ugly production takes one of opera’s punchiest shockers and turns it into a disjointed and confusing symbolist allegory. Pity the marketing team at Opera North, who’ve promised their audience a ‘red-blooded tale of jealousy and revenge’, though with its realistically staged bread queues this vision of socialist utopia might be an ideal introduction to opera for the young Corbynista in your life.

Then, after the interval: Gilbert and Sullivan. Seriously. ON’s six ‘Little Greats’ — a season of one-act operas — appears to mix and match its double bills with the randomness of a fruit machine. All you really need to know about the veteran Savoyard John Savournin’s 1920s updating of Trial by Jury is that it’s a delight; a screwball P.G. Wodehouse world of blustering bobbies, stuffed chihuahuas, tweedy jurors and cakewalking judges in straw boaters, cast and conducted (Oliver Rundell was in the pit) to sparkling perfection. Oh, and that anyone who still thinks G&S can’t be sexy hasn’t seen Amy Freston as Angelina shimmying down the edge of the jury box. It’s the best Trial by Jury I’ve ever seen, and it’s actually designed by the same team who did Cavalleria rusticana. That’s professionalism.

And all you really need to know about Phelim McDermott’s new production of Verdi’s Aida is that the musical performance alone would make it worth seeing. The American soprano Latonia Moore sings the title role, and she’s a knockout: a voice of glowing, searching sweetness, capable of sinking to a shuddering pianissimo, or lighting up the vast space of the Coliseum with arcs of liquid fire. Moore lifted the level of every ensemble in which she sang, equally compelling in her duets with Gwyn Hughes Jones’s slightly stiff Radamès and her confrontation with her father Amonasro (nobly sung by Musa Ngqungwana). Michelle DeYoung’s imperious Amneris didn’t really stand a chance, though there was a sympathetic warmth to her singing that would have been more affecting if McDermott had opted for more eye contact and less standing around and hand-waving.

Not that the costumes and sets left scope to do much else. Like your Aidas grand? Well, here’s grand: towering obelisks and arches, swathes of jewel-coloured silk and all the gold, mist and leopardskin you could ask for. No PC qualms about orientalism here. There are leaping acrobats, mummified crocodiles and semi-naked temple girls, while the chorus (at their best in the quiet passages) wear costumes that range from Robocop to Vivienne Westwood. Some of them have antlers. It is, in short, bonkers, and it’s all swept vividly along by Keri-Lynn Wilson, a conductor who can do both intimate and epic. I’m still trying to decide whether the whole ludicrous spectacle was magnificent or just camp. But it wasn’t dull.

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