OPERA : Early daze

Oberto Opera North, Leeds
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As if to demonstrate the gulf between the Enlightenment and Romanticism, Opera North follows an engagingly sung revival of Cimarosa's Il matrimonio segreto with the surprising passion and power of Verdi's first opera. On hearing The Firebird, Deb ussy said to Stravinsky, "What would you have? One must start somewhere." So with Verdi.

A crude melodrama with only four characters and an onlooking chorus, Oberto is no masterpiece; but performed with such conviction, it explains why the Milan impresario had faith in the young composer. There are many hints of glories to come; what lets itdown are the stilted arias. The most memorable lyrical lines begin the duets and the magnificent first act trio and second act quartet, whose strange tonal inflections and accumulation of tension are early Verdi at its best.

On seeing that the medieval action was to be updated to the 1920s, my heart sank. But the trick works surprisingly well, thanks to Russell Craig's excellent design, which suggests the opulence of a fascist hall rather than a castle; the chorus is in evening dress, the brilliantly colourful flapper style offsetting the savagery of the action. Only the overt piety and the exaggerated sense of honour that lead Count Oberto to his doom seem inconsistent with the period.

The set, blood-coloured on the outside, swings open to reveal a private room, then a hall with chandelier in deep perspective. The Act 2 scene-change took too long, but the war memorial and graveyard suit the last part of the action, in which the pig-headed count refuses to recognise the reconciliation of his dishonoured daughter with her former lover, insists on a duel, and is inevitably killed. Unfortunately, this is not the end; too much time is devoted to the aftermath - a mistake Verdi was rarely to repeat.

The role of Oberto contains too little variety for a singer with John Tomlinson's vocal and histrionic gifts, but he gave it his all and yet had enough energy in reserve to direct the opera as well. His directorial debut is promising indeed; one could follow the action perfectly with (I admit) little foreknowledge. Particularly appreciated were the ensembles, where he allowed his cast to stand still and sing.

Tomlinson's characteristically sturdy performance was strongly supported. Linda Finnie as Cuniza, whose charms or wealth have lured Riccardo away from Leonora, put on a noble display of renunciation. Rita Cullis as Leonora is perhaps a little under-powered in the lower registers, which Verdi exploits mercilessly, but her singing was confident, true and enjoyable throughout and she acted with considerable pathos.

David Maxwell-Anderson was suffering from a cold; the healthy version should be sensational, for already his even and ringing tone and sensitive phrasing gave life to a somewhat thankless role. Pauline Thulborn sang strongly in the only minor role, a servant, and the chorus was in excellent fettle. There was much finesse, as well as fruity brass tone, from the English Northern Philharmonia, directed for the first time, and very stylishly, by David Porcelijn.

n Further performances tonight, then 17, 20, 24 Jan at Leeds Grand Theatre (0113 245 9351)

Julian Rushton