Theatre preview: Opera North’s new season

MOVING ON: Richard Farnes, music director of Opera North.
MOVING ON: Richard Farnes, music director of Opera North.
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‘We have to accept that the elaborate productions required by nineteenth century opera composers are no longer viable in present day economic circumstances’, comments Richard Farnes as he opens his final year as Music Director of Opera North with Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West.

‘The aim of the company has always been to offer leading theatre directors the opportunity to look afresh at operas, and maybe the media has picked up on some high profile productions that have updated the action to modern times, but it is Opera North’s aim to have a balance of updated and traditional productions.’

‘That is true of Aletta Collins’ new staging of Puccini’s American opera where she has brought the story forward to the end of the gold rush, while keeping within the framework of the original scenario with plenty of beer bottles and guns around as despondent miners drown their sorrows in alcohol.’

Farnes’ appointment as music director coincided with the changes the company were making to their infrastructure, the building of rehearsal facilities and administration offices next to the Grand Theatre creating a company atmosphere of international aspirations.

‘It has physically changed everything we do, and has made the company highly cost-effective, though we like to think that on a personal level we have retained the family atmosphere. We have never been large enough to create a resident group of soloists, but we come close by regularly inviting back singers, such as Josephine Barstow and John Tomlinson. who have become internationally famous since appearing with the company in its early years.’

That is particularly true of the cast for Girl of the Golden West, the leading role of Minnie taken by the internationally acclaimed Alwyn Mellor who first appeared with Opera North back in 1998, while three company stalwarts, Rafael Rojas as Dick Johnson; Robert Hayward as the disenchanted Sherriff, and Bonaventura Bottone as Nick, complete the major roles.

‘It is one of Puccini’s most demanding orchestral parts,’ Farnes continues, ‘and we are fortunate in having an outstanding group of musicians, and the only British opera orchestra that regularly appears on the concert stage. With that ever-changing repertoire it has been able to attract some of our finest young players.’

Last October marked the bicentenary of Verdi’s birth, Opera North now joining the celebrations with a revival of Tim Albery’s bleak and chilling 2008 production of Macbeth.

In the midst of this murderous mayhem comes the ultimate present for Valentine’s Day with an evening ‘From Paris with Love’, as three opera stars, Jeni Bern, Peter Auty and Geoffrey Dalton, go on a ‘city by night’ tour from the glamour of the Paris Garnier to the cabarets of the Latin Quarter. Their programme of music journeys through opera favourites by Puccini, Massenet and Offenbach, to the songs of love and heartbreak popularised by Edith Piaf.

Remaining in Paris, a re-run of Phyllida Lloyd’s version of Puccini’s La Boheme takes the story to the city in the 1950’s, and offers a double-cast run from the end of April through early May, with singers chosen to replicate the young Bohemians of the original story.

Almost prophetically Gotterdammerung, which relates the demise of the Gods in the last installment of Wagner’s The Ring, marks Farnes’ final opera as part of the company, and he dispels many rumours floating around that 2015 will see complete Ring cycles, though he hopes at some time in the future the idea may resurface.

Farnes recalls that he has already conducted more operas with the company than anyone before him.

‘My present contract ends this coming August, and I felt that after ten years the time was right for me to move on to new pastures that will probably include more time in the concert hall. I am sure that the company will welcome a new face to continue its many years of outstanding success.

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