Opera North – Livestream Concert from Leeds Town Hall, 30 Sept 2020

Certain Opera North associates got together on Wednesday evening for this free, livestreamed concert, which functioned as something like a preview of what Opera North will be up to in the next months, as well as a review of what they’ve been up to during the dark ages of corona virus.

This was a fun, variety-show-style evening; I recommend the livestream, which is still available to watch on Opera Vision or via Opera North. It was presented by BBC 3 radio host, Suzie Klein.

Handel, ‘Happy We’, from Acis and Galatea (Nicholas Watts, tenor; Amy Freston, soprano; Opera North string quintet and chorus; Oliver Rundell, chorusmaster; David Cowan, harpsichord)

The evening’s proceedings began with this rollicking gigue from Handel’s one-act opera Acis and Galatea. It hasn’t the most thrilling text (it’s by John Gay), and the music lacks some of the power out of context which it possesses within the opera, but it is a quick, fun piece to start things off; and it’s good to see singers Amy Freston and Nicholas Watts, both of whom have put in excellent performances in recent Opera North productions, back performing with great ability – and with some impressive scales! With soloists, choir, string quintet and harpsichord, it is one of the fullest-sounding pieces of this evening of stripped-down and restrained instrumentation.

Before the second piece, livestreamers had to sit through an awkwardly ‘socially distanced’ interview with the General Director. Luckily, watching after the livestream, I could skip this.

Will Todd, Song of Our Heartland (extract)

This was not actually part of the evening’s performance but was a pre-recorded series of extracts. Still, it is worth mentioning for its many beauties. It was composed recently, and so sounds a bit odd, as you might expect – but not too odd; it’s quite singable. The piece is (as I understand it) about County Durham, and seems to be something of a celebration of the place. This opera was supposed to be performed live, but now it will be in the form of a film to be released later this year. It was a bit strange to move to a video after hearing only one piece. This was probably done so ON’s staff could shift instruments around without ‘dead air’; but I would simply have recommended a different setlist or programme.

Beethoven, ‘O wär ich schon mit dir vereint’, from Fidelio (Fflur Wyn, soprano; David Cowan, piano)

It’s Beethoven’s anniversary year, and Opera North are planning a production, of which the present, pretty little aria is a preview.  It was followed by a video advertising Opera North’s and Leeds Playhouse‘s ‘Connecting Voices’ project, which will stage an opera by Poulenc and a play by Beckett, among other things.

Jasdeep Singh Degun, Arya: Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra (extract)

Ever since I was a whippersnapper, listening to The Beatles, I have always enjoyed the sound of the sitar. Additionally, I am always excited to hear newly composed classical music. So I was gutted when I had to miss Arya‘s original performance in March, and was grateful to hear this extract. First there was a brief interview with the sitarist and composer. This went on a bit, but it was good to learn that he is a Leeds lad!

He had whittled the composition down from 40 minutes to 5, and from orchestral accompaniment to string quintet. The piece itself is an immensely lyrical blend of Indian and western classical music. Flitting between different metres and progressing through all sorts of gorgeous harmonies, I’d urge readers to check this piece out!

Puccini, ‘O buon Marcello, aiuto!’, from La Bohème (Katie Bird, soprano; Tim Nelson, baritone; David Cowan, piano)

Out with a new favourite piece, in with an old! This performance took me back to hearing this in Opera North’s production of last year, which left hardly a dry eye in the house. 

The effect wasn’t quite so powerful on this occasion, with Puccini’s gorgeous orchestration reduced to a single piano; but good writing is good writing, and it was most enjoyable. Additionally, the thinner instrumentation allowed me to focus on the words a bit more than is usually possible in a fully orchestrated opera.

This was another preview, since Opera North’s recording of the entire third act of La Bohème is going to be used for an upcoming animation by Matthew Robins – and it looks like it will be very beautiful, too. It’ll be called La Petite Bohème and will be projected in public spaces in cities across the north of England.

Humperdinck, ‘Hocus Pocus’, from Hansel and Gretel (extract and interview with John Savournin)

Who doesn’t love Englebert Humperdinck? Even the name puts me in a good mood. This was also a video – specifically of John Savournin’s ‘whistle-stop opera’ version, which is much more condensed and interactive than usual opera. (Savournin talked us through his interesting ideas behind ‘whistle-stop opera’ in a brief interview.) It was great to hear Humperdinck’s music adapted for accordion – perhaps the most under-appreciated instrument around. There was some enjoyably hammy acting and, of course, excellent singing.

Schubert, ‘Der Neugierige’, from Die Schöne Müllerin (Nicholas Watts, tenor; David Cowan, piano)

First Puccini, then Schubert? Opera North know my favourite composers! This was a highlight of the night – not least because it was nearly the only piece which didn’t need to be ‘reduced’. That is to say, it was written for piano and voice, and was performed by piano and voice. Watts and Cowan perform the song beautifully, the former pronouncing the words so crisply and clearly that even my bad, rusty German can take in the pleasant poem which Schubert set in this delightful song. His tenor voice is rich enough that the sense of ‘thinness’ which somewhat plagued the evening is here absent.

Dvorak, ‘Scherzo and Trio’, from String Quintet No. 2 (Opera North string quartet)

As one would expect from Dvorak, a fun and zippy piece, played with great zest by Opera North string quintet. A humble piece, but really a highlight of the night! Even if the sound balance was a little off, to my ear. 

Mascagni, ‘Easter Hymn (Regina Coeli)’, from Cavalleria Rusticana (Elizabeth Llewellyn, soprano; Chorus of Opera North; Oliver Rundell, organ; David Cowan, conductor)

September seems an odd time for an Easter hymn; but, always being one to enjoy a hymn to the Queen of Heaven (regina coeli), I was willing to overlook the evident disregard for the liturgical calendar.

This famous extract, requiring organ, strings, chorus, and soprano, was perhaps the fullest-sounding of the night, even if the sound-mixing could have been better. Overall, quite delightful!

Thank you, Opera North, for a fun evening – even if it wasn’t as rich a theatrical and musical experience as we had been accustomed to from you before the corona virus era. I take my hat off to the musicians not only for their skill, but also for performing so well in an empty theatre with no audience and just a camera. It may just be my imagination, but I think that this would be somewhat odd and disconcerting for a professional theatrical performer. Thanks to everyone involved for putting it all together. A most enjoyable livestream. Recommended!

Photographs provided by Opera North. Feature photograph by Guzelian.

Leeds Living