It's been a while since I've been to see Opera North, and I've missed them. Anyone who thinks opera is pretentious, or boring, or po-faced upper class nonsense really needs to spend an evening with this most talented of companies, who never fail to entertain and who understand that great opera should be funny as well as beautiful. I also like that they don't do things by halves and seemingly have no aversion to making life harder for themselves - they tend to rock up at The Lowry from time to time with not one but three different productions, all in the same week.
Last week I saw the first of these, an English-sung performance of Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte. Now, most operas - at least the ones I have seen - are somewhat slim of plot, but this one is a pretty straightforward story even by opera standards. Don Alfonso is a philosopher who clearly has both too much time on his hands and an inherent distrust of women - to prove a point, he bets his two friends, Ferrando and Guglielmo, that their beloveds cannot stay faithful over the course of a day. During that day they must do whatever he says, and thus have to go along with the charade when he tells sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella that their menfolk have been sent overseas on active service. Cue lots of caterwauling and posing mournfully but attractively on high-backed chairs by the two young ladies, who are quite obviously going to pass the fidelity test with flying colours. Well, they might have done were it not for Don Alfonso and their feisty lady's maid Despina, who orchestrate a (not very) cunning plan in which Ferrando and Guglielmo dress up as two handsome strangers and put their seductive powers to the test.
As plots go, it's a deliberately sparse one. There's much to be enjoyed along the way - there are some surprisingly funny lines (often at the expense of female honour - even the name of the opera suggests that we're all the same) and the performances are flawless as usual. All but one of the cast are Opera North regulars, and we particularly enjoy the bumbling charms of Nicholas Watts and Gavin Ring as they haplessly attempt to both resist and seduce each other's girlfriends. The staging is also effectively handled, although understated by Opera North's standards - a one-room setting (the sisters' home) that contracts and expands like a vice to reflect the stifling nature of the situation and which cleverly uses doors and lifts to represent different elements of the seduction process. In other words, Opera North do nothing wrong. This just isn't one of my favourite operas - the music is beautiful, with its repeated motifs and stunning arias, but the story just isn't quite enough for me, and words that sound seductive in Italian don't always convey the same mystery and beauty when sung in English. The questions raised over sexual morals in this closed, claustrophobic world are interesting ones, but the distress of some of the characters - particularly Fiordiligi - under the manipulation of Don Alfonso is a little too discomfiting for me.
That said, there are few better ways of spending an evening than in the company of Opera North. They are young, enterprising, sexy and talented - and anyone who still thinks that opera is for the elite may like to know that later in the evening I found myself discussing just how poorly Fiordiligi had been treated with the lady herself (Maire Flavin) on Twitter. I'm already looking forward to their return - keep an eye on their website for news of upcoming productions. Just don't blame me if you end up speaking to everyone in song the next day...
- photos courtesy of Opera North: all photo credits Tristram Kenton.