ARTS / Splendour in the North: Opera of the Year

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS, as they say in company reports, a year of consolidation: neither mirabilis nor - with a few exceptions (Princess Ida, Ubu, Biko) - horribilis. At Covent Garden, standards rose while the deficit deepened. At ENO, the regime settled into the home straight before Messrs Jonas, Pountney and Elder go their various ways in July 1993. Glyndebourne staged a goodbye-to-all-that season which literally brought the house down.

The other out-of-London companies turned in generally good seasons with just one or two real events. WNO scored an international coup with a Pelleas et Melisande that brought together Pierre Boulez and Peter Stein, and followed up with a searing Elektra staged by David Alden. Scottish Opera did a striking and well-sung Julius Caesar whose brashness wasn't universally admired but made a strong impression. For visual impact, Covent Garden's Flying Dutchman took some beating with John Gunter's virtuoso kinetic stage.

Beyond the conventional circuit, the best things were a monumental student production of Vaughan Williams's Pilgrim's Progress at the Royal Northern College in Manchester (so accomplished that it's now on CD) and an immaculate touring Turn of the Screw from Pimlico Opera, an endlessly resourceful little company whose merits have just been recognised by the Arts Council, not before time.

The most powerful show was Glyndebourne's Death in Venice, directed by Stephen Lawless, conducted by Graeme Jenkins and starring Robert Tear and Alan Opie. But that wasn't a new production. The best new work was Opera North's The Duenna, the British premiere of a piece written by Roberto Gerhard in 1947 but not staged until last January in Madrid. That production didn't persuade me that this was a neglected masterpiece. But Opera North's quite different staging did. It was a genuine company performance, done with an ensemble cast whose comic timing was superb and who all but danced their way through the zarzuela-like set-pieces of the score. Helena Kaut-Howson's production was up- tempo, light and lucid; Antoni Ros-Marba, conducting, delivered a performance I'd describe as fragrant if it wouldn't sound pejorative. That Opera North took on an unknown opera by a modern composer was remarkable. That it worked so well has probably secured The Duenna a toe-hold on repertory status. What more can you ask?

(Photograph omitted)