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Richard Trinder
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@richardtrinder
12:53 PM 7th October 2023
arts

Masque Of Might - Has Opera North Lost The Plot?

 
Andri Björn Róbertsson as Nebulous. All photos: James Glossop
Andri Björn Róbertsson as Nebulous. All photos: James Glossop
When an opera has a difficult or opaque narrative it might be reasonable to ask if the plot has been lost. This would certainly apply to Sir David Pountney's Masque of Might, with 'musical numbers' edited by Huw Daniel. Note there the unusual expression 'musical numbers'. That's a phrase more often associated with big West End or Broadway productions - Les Mis, Miss Saigon, Phantom, and so on. And is the merest hint of the quirkiness and originality of this piece.

What the production also shares with Les Mis et al is its structure, being composed of a string of hits from the the 80s and 90s - albeit the 1680s and 1690s.

The narrative, and I use the term loosely here, is a tale of gods, magic, terrible earthly rulers and their sycophants. Two powerful beings, Nebulous and Elena, look down on the earth and are appalled at the mess the humans are making (they have a point) and when a new and terrible ruler called Diktat appears they call upon the gods and spirits to shroud the earth in darkness. A climate emergency begins.

James Laing as Tousel Blond, James Hall as Strumpet Ginger with dancers Ben Yorke-Griffiths, Rose Ellen Lewis, Jonny Aubrey-Bentley and Ruby Portus
James Laing as Tousel Blond, James Hall as Strumpet Ginger with dancers Ben Yorke-Griffiths, Rose Ellen Lewis, Jonny Aubrey-Bentley and Ruby Portus
In a more than amusing dig at another easy-going ruler, an un-shirted Diktat runs a wild boar hunt in a ridiculous show of machismo. Gradually his toady supporters are persuaded to move to the side of the climate activists and Diktat's world starts to crumble.

Whilst all this may seem a little unstructured, it really isn't. The production is built on a backbone of the sublime music of Henry Purcell, here quite brilliantly re-purposed by changing the odd word or two, or rewritten if necessary, to be a narrative for our difficult times. The climate emergency is directly addressed as a central theme but a couple of unsubtle digs at the likes of Putin and Trump were more than welcome. And it has a happy ending of sorts where light returns and the earth begins to heal.

All of this may appear a little bonkers, in truth it is a little, but I absolutely loved it and I feel privileged to have attended its world première. I would be delighted to go back and see the whole thing again tonight.

James Hall as Strumpet Ginger, Andri Björn Róbertsson as Nebulous and James Laing as Tousel Blond
James Hall as Strumpet Ginger, Andri Björn Róbertsson as Nebulous and James Laing as Tousel Blond
Masque of Might is the second of Opera North's 'sustainable productions', where considerable effort is taken to re-use existing materials. This highly laudable aim might hint at a poorer quality production, but it is not so. With a stunning back video projection by David Haneke and glorious costumes designed by Marie Jeanne Lecca and made by Opera North's own costume department this opera is as much a visual feast as any I have seen.

Callum Thorpe, who incidentally also has a PhD in Immunology, made a very fine Diktat, his apparently effortless resonant bass giving him gravitas when needed, although his tongue-in-cheek Putin-esque boar hunting scene will take some living down. Let's hope he has developed some immunity to the ensuing mockery.

English soprano, Anna Dennis (Elena / Queen of the Night) has a truly lovely voice and suits Purcell perfectly.

Baroque specialist and internationally renowned conductor Harry Bicket steers the orchestra of Opera North through 44 of Purcell compositions, some well known, others previously languishing as incidental music for plays.

With so many of Purcell's 'hits' on display it would be churlish to pick one as a winner, but Come ye sons of Art, away involving counter-tenors James Laing and James Hall and the chorus had such a joyful, exuberant rendition that it gave notice to the many pleasures to come.

Jonny Aubrey-Bentley, Rose Ellen Lewis, Ruby Portus and Ben Yorke-Griffiths as the Masque of Might dancers
Jonny Aubrey-Bentley, Rose Ellen Lewis, Ruby Portus and Ben Yorke-Griffiths as the Masque of Might dancers
This is an unusual production and was described to me as Marmite - love it or hate it. Well, I happen to like Marmite and I absolutely adore this opera. In my mind it is all things an opera should be: quirky, a little raw, bursting with talent and thought provoking.

Masque of Might runs at Leeds Grand Theatre until Thursday 16th November and then tours to Theatre Royal, Newcastle, Theatre Royal, Nottingham and The Lowry, Salford Quays

Read our recent interview with Executive Director Henry Filloux-Bennett, Changing The Face Of Opera