Opening on Valentine’s day with a smart performance of Purcell’s classic Dido and Aeneas and Poulenc’s rarely performed masterpiece La Voix Humaine, Opera North treated us to a miserable delight by presenting not one but two tragic love stories of forlorn women. It was the Poulenc in particular that had the Grand Theatre brimming as this challenging, one act soprano solo also happened to mark the triumphant return of local lass Lesley Garrett. Expectations were met with a brave and commanding performance of Elle, a woman both ravishing and ravished. Abandoned on one end of the phone line, slowly crumbling in her prison of isolation, the only support Garrett could afford was from the orchestra and set design. But how they rose to the occasion, the orchestra performing a thrilling role of ‘Mickey-mousing’, almost in conversation with Garrett on stage. A stage which itself accentuated beautifully the pain of solitude, opening with us peering through Elle’s dressing room mirror, its lights framing Garrett’s face on an otherwise blacked out stage. This was the reason everyone had turned up and from this powerful opening through the fragmented collapse of Elle’s relationship and own psyche, the audience remained motionless and thoroughly enraptured by this rare and triumphant opera.
Following La Voix Humaine was Purcell’s own Baroque classic, based on the tragic love story of Dido & Aeneas. Separated only by the interval could not leave enough time to prepare us for the stark contrast between Poulenc’s mid-20th century composition and Purcell’s traditional Baroque, even though director Aletta Collins sought to ease the transition by drawing a number of visual cues between the two shows. Most striking was the innovative choreography implemented into the show, Collins greatly exploiting her dance background by turning the witches into dancing figments of Dido’s fractured consciousness. Pamela Helen Stephen’s is another well cast soprano, matching the expressive complexity of Garrett’s performance in equal measure and ensuring the always much anticipated aria’s of ‘Ah, Belinda’ and ‘Dido’s Lament’ more than matched the lofty expectations of the audience, just as Garrett had done in the first half. Though an unusual pairing, both are great opera’s in their own right and were brilliantly delivered. Perhaps the opportunity to pair such contrasting shows was ambitiously undertaken to draw in a diverse audience with which such a display could convince that opera has a vast and eclectic repertoire that should be embraced. It is therefore most telling that it was at the end of the rare and challenging Poulenc first half that a presumably younger member of the audience yelled “do it all again!”
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