Opera North Gala | Grand Theatre, Leeds

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The Independent Culture

It was party time for Opera North last night, and what a swell party it was. The company was celebrating its 21st birthday - a little late, since it actually opened its doors in November 1978. But who cares, when the party is as lavishly enjoyable as this one.

If anyone invented Opera North, it was Lord Harewood, then in charge of English National Opera at the Coliseum. So it was appropriate that he should introduce the festivities. The menu on this occasion had been chosen, more or less, by the audience, who had previously been invited to select items for inclusion.

The result was an extraordinary feast of singing and playing. Four conductors, included Opera North's three music directors and Elgar Howarth. The 21 soloists were all singers who have worked regularly with the company, including such favourites as John Tomlinson, Josephine Barstow, Sally Burgess, Arthur Davies, Andrew Shore, and Clive Bayley.

It was, in fact, more than a concert. The orchestra was in the pit, and there was minimal but imaginative staging, reminding us that this was opera, not a mere soundtrack. Great singing actors like Barstow and Tomlinson don't need many props, and both filled the stage in magnificent solos from La Forza del Destino and Boris Godunov.

The dramatic highlight of the evening was the scene between King Phillip and the grand inquisitor from Don Carlos. You could not expect to hear it better sung than it was by John Tomlinson and Clive Bayley. Verdi figured prominently in the programme, as he has in Opera North's repertoire. The second half began with the opening chorus from Nabucco and ended with Andrew Shore leading the company in the finale to Falstaff.

Musicals were not neglected. Sally Burgess recreated her role in Show Boat with her touching version of "Can't Help Loving Dat Man", and Bernstein was represented by the overture to Candide and "Gee, Officer Krupke" from West Side Story. No doubt about it, Opera North is in good shape and good hands. The singers seemed to enjoy the evening as much as the audience.