Festival madness aside, midsummer is the time for national opera companies to shake themselves out and venue hop. The Royal Opera has gone east and south to Hackney and Southwark with two chamber-sized premieres (by Na’ama Zisser and Tansy Davies). Welsh National Opera is on tour with Elena Langer’s racy new suffragette opera, Rhondda Rips It Up. English National Opera will follow a praised Acis and Galatea, staged at its West Hampstead studio, with Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw outdoors at Regent’s Park this week.
Opera North – the list ends here – brought its classic Cole Porter musical Kiss, Me Kate to the London Coliseum last Wednesday, and staged a new show in Leeds in collaboration with West Yorkshire Playhouse, nimbly directed by Giles Havergal. Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill, the story of the composer’s journey from prewar Germany to exile in America, featured a nine-strong ensemble of chorus members, performing at Leeds City Varieties music hall. This beautiful red plush and gold Victorian theatre, venue for the likes of Houdini, Buster Keaton and Danny La Rue, is a jewel.
No cod German or American accents; top quality singing and nifty footwork set the tone for Gene Lerner’s musical revue, created in 1972, with music by Weill (1900-1950) and songs from the highlights of his career. An informative narration, shared between the performers, linked the early brilliance of The Threepenny Opera (1928) to the final, touching but problematic Lost in the Stars (1949). Amy J Payne swooned and spat, catlike and furious, in Surabaya Johnny from Happy End. Amy Freston, originally trained as a dancer, and Dean Robinson twirled perfectly in the Pimp’s tango, and the entire lineup delighted in Ice Cream (Street Scene), first up after the interval when many in the audience were still polishing off their vanilla tubs.
The female ensemble caught the sharp irony of That’s Him from One Touch of Venus (1943), with lyrics by Ogden Nash (“He’s like a plumber when you need a plumber: satisfactory”). For the final “that’s him”, mezzo-soprano Laura Kelly-McInroy draped herself over the resolutely undistracted music director, Martin Pickard, who deserved the accolade: directing from a grand piano to the rear of the extended City Varieties stage, he held all together with pinpoint timing, making the instruments sound rhythmic and rough; silken and caressed.
Moving south to rural Leicestershire, a handsome new theatre of similar size – 400 seats – has been built within the stable block of Nevill Holt Hall, a Grade I-listed grand pile owned by the Carphone Warehouse co-founder David Ross, whose initiative this is. Designed sympathetically in wood and stone by Witherford Watson Mann, the theatre is functional and comfortable, with a crisp, generous acoustic by Sound Space Vision (also responsible for Garsington’s pavilion, and many concert halls worldwide). It helps, from the pleasure point of view, that the estate has spectacular walled gardens, its own private sculpture park and vistas over middle England.
To open with Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, prettily done in Chardin-style mob caps, tricorns and breeches, might seem a safe bet, though whether The Marriage of Figaro, full of dark complexity and genius, can ever be an easy ride is debatable. The season’s other opera, Thomas Adès and Philip Hensher’s Powder Her Face, shows a different kind of brave intention. Two top ensembles – the Northern Sinfonia in Mozart, the Britten Sinfonia in Adès – are in harness.
After an initial association with Grange Park Opera, Nevill Holt has had an opera festival for four years. Its young artists’ programme, and a strong connection with local schools, are key to its endeavour. Like other country house companies, it makes a point of giving singers in the early stages of their career a chance to try big roles: in 2015, rising star tenor, David Butt Philip sang Don José in Carmen. This year the name on everyone’s lips was that of Leicestershire-born baritone James Newby, 25, already the recipient of many prizes, making an outstanding debut as the Count in Figaro. He has a golden tone and he can act.
The theatre’s intimate size, and the recessed pit preventing too dominant an orchestral sound, gives fine support to developing voices. Lawson Anderson’s robust and animated Figaro and Aoife Miskelly’s wry Susanna led an able cast, with memorable cameos from Rowan Pierce (Barbarina) and, now rarely seen on stage, the doyenne soprano Joan Rodgers (Marcellina). Joe Austin’s direction, with white Spanish-Moorish designs by Simon Kenny, tended towards the fussy, but Nicholas Chalmers, artistic director, conducted with assurance and, after a slow start, plenty of zest.
You can hear Figaro in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 23 in A major, K.488, finished just before the opera’s premiere. It featured in a BBC Invitation Concert given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Gergely Madaras with 25-year-old Mariam Batsashvili as a superbly poised soloist – a name to watch. The BBC has just announced plans to close Maida Vale studios, which have been home to the BBCSO since 1934. We shouldn’t be too nostalgic about the closure of a windowless building full of asbestos, but it’s part of broadcasting history. The real hail and farewell isn’t until 2022. Since someone’s bound to say it, I’ll go first: ave atque Maida Vale.
Star ratings (out of 5):
Berlin to Broadway With Kurt Weill ★★★★
Le nozze di Figaro ★★★★
BBC Symphony Orchestra ★★★★