Opera North's version of Handel's Saul - a dramatic oratorio here semi-staged by John Fulljames - is, the company promises, just the start of an overdue focus on the baroque repertoire.
The Victorian grandeur of Leeds Town Hall is an appropriate setting for this epic tale, here acted out in front of gigantic 3D orange letters spelling "SAUL", around which characters cluster, clamber or hide. Finally, as the eponymous king degenerates into madness, the crepe paper is ripped off leaving the word, like the king reduced to vest and braces, in tatters.
More the boss of a corporate empire - of undertakers perhaps, judging by the obligatory black suits - than an egotistical monarch, Robert Hayward becomes more involving as Saul. He captures his capricious moods without being excessive, though he could have lived a little more dangerously. Mark Wilde is a sympathetic Jonathan, while Tim Mead, clad in white to convey his purity, makes an affecting David, though appears more nonchalant than vulnerable in his role as peacemaker.
As Merab, the more forthright of the king's two daughters, Sarah Fox is the height of haughty arrogance with beautifully intense singing and a concentrated dramatic style. Lucy Crowe complements her as a vocally refined though no less agile Michal, but in giving her an air of vagueness, the director leaves her looking a bit spare at times.
The smaller parts are moderately well delineated - the Ghost of Samuel (a sombrely toned Garrick Forbes) emerges from the shadows in raincoat and trilby, like a private detective.
Despite far too much unnecessary stage-shifting and scene-stealing (especially in the case of the messenger Doeg), the semi-staging doesn't distract too much from the music, which is well executed under Christian Curnyn's brisk direction. Many cast members are making their company debuts, and the orchestra offers firm support, establishing an appropriately businesslike tone from the start, and displaying genuine feeling for the music's imaginative qualities. A delightful harp solo and attractive organ colour almost make up for the absence of period instruments.
The chorus isn't sounding at its freshest as the people of Israel, scarcely up to spanning the chasm between joy and despondency. But it's probably hard to feel involved when fixed to one spot while everyone else is moving around, often for no apparent reason.
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