Twilight: Freedom! @ Howard Assembly Rooms, Leeds

By July 4, 2014

Music. Leeds.

[Image:Opera North’s production of Bizet’s Carmen. The Chorus of Opera North: Conductor Andreas Delfs, Director Daniel Kramer, Set Designer Soutra Gilmour, Costume Designer Gabrielle Dalton, Lighting Designer Charles Balfour, Choreographer Lucy Burge, Fight Director Ran Braun.

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton]


This crepuscular concert was specifically designed to showcase the Chorus of Opera North, which has been running for 36 years, and perhaps point up the work that the chorus of any opera company does behind the soloists and stars who receive all the plaudits and accolades.

Opera North’s Chorus Master Martin Wettges was making his conducting debut for Opera North in tonight’s performance. Born in Germany, Wettges studies in Munich, Cincinnati and Vienna. Most recently he was the Chorus Master at Munich Prinzregententheater from 2006-2013 and held the same position at the Herrenchiemsee Festspiele. He has been guest conductor for Opera companies in Berlin, Coburg, Karlstad, Leipzig, Munich and some major orchestras including Cape Town Philharmonic, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Munich Symphony and Munich Radio Orchestra. As Opera North’s newest Chorus Master, Wettges says his move to Opera North was encouraged by his admiration of the company. When asked about his move in a recent interview he said:

‘…the Chorus of Opera North is arguable the best opera chorus in the country. Each singer is part of a core ensemble – singers are not considered second rate soloists, but first rate choristers.’

For the programme, Wettges put together a series of 19th century folk inspired songs and instrumental pieces that celebrate ‘the vagabond life, free love and escapism from the constraints of society’. Given the familiarity of most of the pieces performed it was unlikely the audience would be inspired to cast off their social chains, rampage through the streets of Leeds and set up a commune in Hunslet, but the Chorus in particular did an excellent job of injecting living fire and passion into their pieces.

A selection from Johannes Brahms Zigeunerleider (Gypsy Songs) were used as a loosener (no disservice intended, I’m sure) for the Chorus’ throats but the arrangements made good use of the mixed male and female voices (14 of each) to give the pieces a dramatic vigour to suit the theme. Early examples of the potential power of the Chorus in full voice sat beside vertiginous but precisely controlled drops in volume. The programme featured several instrumentalists in solo and group settings as well as providing accompaniment to the Chorus. Christopher Bradley played two traditional Hungarian folk songs on a Cimbalom, a kind of hammered dulcimer with a complex arrangement of strings with a bright metallic sound, that lent itself to the skipping, celebratory feel of his second piece in particular, a Czech wedding dance. Later, Bradley formed a trio with violinist David Greed and double bassist Paul Miller to play another Brahms piece, Hungarian Dance No. 5 in G minor, and Vittorio Monti’s Csardas’, but apart from Greed’s sometimes rakish playing these interpretations were somewhat stilted and didn’t seem to want to set themselves free ‘from the constraints of society’.

The highlights to the short but varied and packed concert all belonged to the superb Chorus, though. Two pieces by Hungarian Zoltan Kodaly split the Chorus along gender lines; the hymnal Esti dal was taken by the male half and bookended by atmospheric vocal drones that underpinned its serene stillness; while the female half seemed to relish the exuberant urgency of the much more dynamic Turot eszik a cigany. The pieces date from 1938 and 1925 respectively and so strictly speaking are outside one aspect of the self-imposed remit for the concert, and it shows. Stylistically the pieces betray much more of a 20th century approach to composition, a point emphasised by following piece, Elgar’s Spanish Serenade, which is a pretty enough tune but benefitted greatly from the vigour the Chorus brought to it.

But the stars of the programme were the aria ‘Habanera’ (L’amour est un oiseau rebelle) from Bizet’s Carmen, and The Anvil Chorus from Verdi’s Il Travatore. The former must be one of the most seductive melodies ever written and mezzo soprano Claire Pasco sings the lead with an appropriately lascivious relish and makes it a downright filthy pean to sensuality. The arrangement of The Anvil Chorus emphasises the role of the chorus in the piece rather than any soloist, and it becomes a blazing, stirring shout of collective defiance in the face of oppression. The two pieces also serve to underline the fact that the human voice, the original ‘instrument’, has no peer.

Steve Walsh

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