Opera: Opera, but not as we know it

The Nightingale's To Blame Opera North Grand Theatre Leeds
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OPERA NORTH has an impressive record of commissioning new British operas. Robert Saxton, Benedict Mason and Michael Berkeley are among those who have benefited, and this season it is the turn of the very talented Simon Holt. His Lorca-based The Nightingale's to Blame had its premiere at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival last autumn, and now joins the spring repertoire in Leeds, York, Nottingham and Newcastle.

We first see Don Perlimplin, a decayed bachelor on the wrong side of 50, seated at his upright piano, laboriously teasing out what might once have been a Scarlatti sonata. Much against his will, he is persuaded to propose marriage to Belisa, an alluringly sensual woman of far fewer years.

The wedding night is not a success. But Perlimplin has become devoted to his young wife and, far from discouraging her desire for younger lovers, he commits suicide to clear the way for her. What begins as (rather heavy- handed) comedy darkens into grotesque tragedy.

But we can never be sure if these younger lovers are only figments of his or Belisa's imagination, or if she too is a creature of fantasy. What is certain is that Perlimplin is the opera's only wholly rounded character and the only one who develops within it, although at its end Belisa may be at the start of her real emotional life.

It is essentially a chamber opera, written for six singers and an ensemble of 17 players - no violins. From these modest resources Holt conjures up an extraordinarily vivid and at times quite magical range of sounds. There is a marvellous nocturnal chorus for offstage women's voices, accompanied by a muted trumpeter wandering in the auditorium. In a witty, sinister interlude two strange asexual spirits, the Duendes, give a wry commentary on the misplaced marriage.

And it has to be said that Opera North has done Holt proud. Neil Irish's sets - based in part on Lorca's own sketches (reproduced in the programme) but also reminiscent of the painter John Piper - are absolutely ravishing, and sensitively lit by Chris Ellis. Nor was there anything remotely tentative about the performance. Martin Duncan's production had been thoroughly rehearsed. Patricia Rozario sang Belisa's hugely demanding coloratura with dazzling accomplishment. Donald Maxwell, a famous Falstaff in excellent voice, gave a splendid and ultimately rather touching performance as Perlimplin.

I was less persuaded by Frances McCafferty's rather predictable comic cameo as Belisa's mother, but Fiona Kimm as Perlimplin's housekeeper, Marcolfa, was convincing, and the two Duendes, Thora Einsdottir and Amanda Boyd, were acrobatically as well as vocally brilliant. Richard Farnes conducted, and the ensemble played with assurance.

It's a short (80 minute) opera which would go well in a double bill with one of those neglected brief works by Holst, say, or Ravel's even briefer hour in Spain. If you are interested in opera as a live art form, and not just as a museum of the past, you won't want to miss it.

Anthony Arblaster

Tomorrow and Sat (0113-222 6222), then Nottingham, 4 June, and Newcastle, 10 June