Opera North has looked north in its latest commission from Jonathan Dove, Swanhunter, an hour-long opera designed for children but engaging for adults. The tale of Lemminkainen is drawn from the Finnish Kalevala, where the exploits of the womanising hunter-hero are frankly more suited to an x-rated film than a kids' opera. The librettist Alasdair Middleton, however, has drawn on one of the less raunchy but more gory episodes in which the young man scours the northlands for a wife.
His adventures involve him in a series of tough challenges dreamed up by a fierce woman, who, if all goes well, will become his mother-in-law – a far more scary prospect than the dangerous tasks she sets him. Having fought off savage dogs, hunted the Devil's Elk and ridden the Devil's Horse, Lemminkainen shoots the Swan of Tuonela but is himself killed. This being an opera, his mother sings the pieces of her dismembered son magically back together in a heart-melting lament.
Steered by Opera North's education department and deftly directed by Clare Whistler, the production is as pared down as could be with six singers and, alongside them on stage, a sextet. Dove applies instrumental colour in a particularly effective and folkloric way, with Nordic horn calls, hunter's drumming and sinister double bass signifying death, with harp and accordion adding their exotic tone.
The cast, which appears to have been costumed from a thrift shop, tackles the score with a zest that makes every note ring. Andrew Rees makes a robust Lemminkainen, acting and singing with infectious enthusiasm, hovering between the lyric and the heroic. As his mother, Yvonne Howard applies sensual beauty to a reading that combines ardour and cool reflectiveness.
The remaining four singers, well-matched vocally, slip in and out of a number of supporting roles as well as forming a stalwart ensemble. Elizabeth Cragg stands out as the Swan, floating her high notes and soaring to such stratospheric regions that some of the younger members of the audience put their hands over their ears.
Conductor Stuart Stratford brings a lightness of touch to Dove's often mercurial score while the six players make articulate, sharp-edged contributions. Swanhunter may be a chilly tale, but it's impossible not to warm to a show which hums along on the heat of its inspiration.Reuse content