MUSIC / Spanish highs: The Duenna - Opera North

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The Independent Culture
A Spanish comedy written in English by a Catalan with Austrian training, Roberto Gerhard's opera The Duenna is a perfect contribution to the European Arts Festival. Composed in the 1940s but not staged until this year, it is an astonishing work, matching post-Schoenbergian textures with the colours of Spanish folk music, and setting Sheridan's more homely drama within a wider cultural framework, demanding (and, in this skilful and lively production by Helena Kaut-Howson, receiving) a view of Spain more reminiscent of Goya than a travelogue.

It ought not to work, but it does, partly no doubt because Sheridan's play was already a sort of opera - a benefit to Gerhard reflected in the effective contrast of free-flowing development with set-pieces and in a seemingly natural alternation of speaking and singing within a continuous orchestral score - but above all because of the composer's unfailingly precise harmonic and colouristic ear, which modulates between the styles and makes them, for the duration, seem one.

It also works because Gerhard's Spanishness was as genuine as his modernism. The familiar Iberian rhythms, at crunchy tempi set by the conductor Antoni Ros-Marba, and the melodic curves within the modalities of Spanish song, never cloy; their exuberance is always open to challenge from more ambiguous elements, and so itself becomes equivocal. Sheridan's cynicism is tempered with feeling, even darkness, by the cultural resonance of the music: overt Spanishness bursts forth at high moments and Spanish rhythms hover mockingly over more intimate scenes. It is an opera which transcends its literary source as surely as Pelleas or Wozzeck.

As the busily pompous and occasionally touching Don Jerome, Andrew Shore sang and acted to perfection, matched by the robust duenna of Gillian Knight and the prinking Don Isaac of Eric Roberts (a Reggie Perrin in yellow stockings). As the lovers, Adrian Clarke, Susan Chilcott, Gordon Wilson and Pamela Helen Stephen made a good quartet, with the latter's neo-classical aria a marvellously still centre to the busy first act. Paul Wade led the list of effective minor roles. The chorus and dancers (beautifully choreographed by Kate Flatt) represented every social stratum of this mythical 18th-century Seville, adding a rich visual counterpart to the wealth of orchestral detail. With Sue Blane's ingenious sets, this was a production hard to fault, and an opera most happily recovered from limbo to take its rightful place in the repertory.

In rep at Leeds Grand (0532 459351) and on tour