REVIEW: Opera North’s Jenůfa and The Barber of Seville at Leeds Grand Theatre

By November 3, 2015


A scene from The Barber Of Seville. Photo credit: ©Tristram Kenton

A scene from The Barber Of Seville. Photo credit: ©Tristram Kenton

Rich Jevons finds Opera North’s Jenůfa at Leeds Grand Theatre a match for any of the melodrama of a modern-day soap and The Barber of Seville a resounding comedy classic.

In Tom Cairns’ highly successful revival of the 1995 production of Janáček’s operatic masterpiece Jenůfa we experience the kind of melodrama you would expect from a modern day soap. It sees a dysfunctional family made up of half brothers Laca and Steva and their stern but largely ineffectual grandmother Buryjovka.

David Butt Philip’s Laca is envious of the popular Steva and is being eaten inside by his obsession with the stoic and waifish Jenůfa (Ylva Kihlberg). She, however, is in turn under the spell of the charm of Steva and, most importantly, is bearing his child, a scandal outside marriage that could ruin them both. Laca’s love is initially repulsive to Jenůfa but things change in the course of events and she is eventually swayed by pity and appreciation of his patience, if nothing else.

Ed Lyon’s Steva includes perfecting that most difficult of acts, that is singing and dancing with a debauched drunken lilt, much to the disgust of Jenůfa’s stepmother, The Kostelnicka. In her role as the village sacristan she is driven by religious orthodoxy and fear of social disgrace to secretly commit a despicable if understandable crime.

The set with its sideways nod to German expressionism with its acute angles and shifting lighting is both effective and evocative. And it is wonderful to be able to see so much of the Orchestra of Opera North, masterfully conducted by Aleksandar Markovic, even if their volume levels interfere at times with the arias.

At some points this is an utterly harrowing operatic narrative but not without enough humour and charm to endear it to us as another tour de force in Opera North’s sensational season.

So this runs concurrently with Giles Havergal’s fourth revival of Rossini’s comic classic, The Barber of Seville, which first took the boards in Leeds back in 1986. It takes place in a stage within a stage, which is three-tiered: a basement for the barber shop; a central living room of Dr Bartolo; and the heights of Rosina’s bedroom.

It is given the feel of a Commedia del’Arte performance watched by the chorus who playfully interact with the actual action. And it is in an English translation by Robert David MacDonald whose libretto is lucid, lively and lyrical. Eric Roberts’ elderly doctor act is incisive with some split-second comic timing in the speedier moments.

Rosina, his ward and intended bride-to-be, is played by Katie Bray as part shy coquette, part cunning vixen, but always cultivated and highly collectible to both doctor and doting Almaviva (an inspiring Nicholas Watts). Above all else Gavan Ring in the title role is supremely comic, with endless well-timed gags played with both vocal and physical humorous wit. 

Then we have the ridiculously outré performance of Alistair Miles as Don Basilio, whose wig and costume is as ludicrous as his part in the uproarious narrative. This is romantic comic opera par excellence with the ensemble seemingly enjoying the entertainment as much as the chuckling audience. The bright and breezy freshness of the tomfoolery and teasing comic capers leave us with a knowing wink as well as a whistle to take out into the city streets with much pleasure.

Reviewed at Leeds Grand Theatre 24 and 27 October 2014. See for more info.