Review: Masque of Might. Opera North. Royal Concert Hall

Dear reader – I have a confession to make – I’ve never before seen any work by Opera North. Scandalous I know. I adore theatre. I visit regularly. I’ve just never thought of myself as somebody who might be interested in Opera. I did once venture into an Opera House – the Teatro Dell’Opera in Rome no less, back in 2004. I was living and studying in Italy at the time and it felt like a good idea to go and see an opera. “When in Rome” and all that! The piece in question was Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot (of ‘Nessun Dorma’ fame) and I have to say I was thoroughly underwhelmed by the whole experience. I didn’t have much of a clue as to what any of the words meant (I could barely make them out) and it seemed to go on forever. I never went back. Interestingly, I recently looked up the production in question and it turns out that it was actually rather good – the critics of the day loved it and it had starred some very famous operatic performers and musicians. Pearls before swine I suppose…

So, when the invitation came my way to attend this world premiere performance of Sir David Pountney’s Masque of Might, I thought it must be about time to give the genre another go. This piece intrigues me on so many levels. Firstly, it is billed as a ‘masque’ and not an ‘opera’. A masque is a 17th Century version of a variety show featuring specialty acts, song and dance and spectacle. Secondly, this performance is sung in English with titles – appealing (might have a clue what’s going on!). Thirdly, this is billed as part of Opera North’s ‘Eco Season’ guided by the principles of the Theatre Green Book. The focus is on sustainability and the theme of the evening is the endangered future of our planet. The Masque is billed as an ‘eco entertainment’ and literally everything is recycled. The sets, costumes and even the music! I love the sound of it. I’m looking forward to giving it a go.

The first thing to note is how spectacular the sets are – everything is sustainably sourced and it looks incredible. Leslie Travers’ set is a mixture of luxurious and bonkers with pieces of textile and recycled bits and pieces everywhere. Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s costumes are of a similar ilk – the ‘look’ of the piece is quite special – unlike anything I’ve ever seen in theatre before.

The story centres around an evil megalomaniac called Diktat (Callum Thorpe) who has plans to dominate and destroy the world – he represents the worst of humanity in his destructive and wanton approach to the planet. There are definite echoes of Mr Putin. He has two henchmen Tousel Blond and Ginger Strumpet (James Laing and James Hall respectively) who do his bidding and are a funny double act in the best tradition of Bond Villain sidekicks. Elena (Amy Freston) is the hero of the piece who is  campaigning against Diktat for the good of the planet and who ultimately wins the day. Each of these performers has a magnificent voice and superb diction – the words are as clear as a bell in amongst the melodies. The story telling is, in the tradition of masque, both simple and profound. It is the tussle between good and evil. There are bystanders and there are campaigners. The cast of seven (who all play at least two parts I think) do a superb job of telling the story.

The music is under the splendid direction of conductor Harry Bicket. The score is entirely that of Henry Purcell (English composer, 1659-1695) who wrote many of his pieces for the theatre and church. We hear 44 of his gems here. These pieces have been re-purposed and woven together (in the spirit of recycling) and they now do their bit to contribute to the storytelling of good conquering over evil. It is lovely to be able to recognise many famous melodies (even as a non-specialist ear!) such as the Plaint from The Fairy Queen and also to be introduced to some of his less well-known pieces. Interestingly, it turns out that Purcell was ahead of his time in his concern for the planet so he is a very good choice of composer for this evening. The musicians are a powerhouse of sound and yet they never overpower or overwhelm the space or performers. The chorus of singers sound spectacular and move well too. Denni Sayers’ choreography is beautiful. The overall impression is quite special.

A special word of praise must be given to David Haneke’s video inserts which are powerful tools in the storytelling and also bring the broader picture of the story into sharp focus on stage.

All in all, this is an experience to relish. It is a feast for the senses. It is playful yet powerful. You cannot help but be entertained and moved by the music, the dance and the storytelling. It can be enjoyed by opera lovers and opera novices alike. It is accessible without losing any of the gravitas of the genre. If you love music, fantastic performances and have a concern for the future of the planet, this is one to catch.

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