Opera review: Mischa in wonderland

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Julietta

Grand Theatre, Leeds

Bohuslav Martinu's was given its British premiere by the New Opera Company at the Coliseum in 1978, a mere 40 years after its premiere in Prague. It has not, I think, been seen here since. But if there is any justice in the operatic world, Opera North's superb new production will ensure that this extraordinary work gets the recognition it deserves.

is based on a play by Georges Neveux that the composer saw during his inter-war years in Paris, and from which he made his own libretto. Its subtitle was La Cle des Songes, and, as that suggests, it was a product of the then flourishing culture of surrealism, with its fascination with dreams and the unconscious. The opera's final act takes place, if anywhere, in the Central Office of Dreams, a creepy parody of bureaucracy that doubles as a lunatic asylum. Martinu saw as "a beautiful and poetic fantasy in the form of a dream". But what makes such a powerful work is that it is more haunted nightmare than inconsequential dreaming, in which the atmosphere darkens steadily from act to act.

Michel (or Mischa), a bookseller from Paris - Paul Nilon, looking suitably nerdy - arrives in a seaside town in search of a girl whose voice he once heard there singing a love song. But, like Alice, he has entered a world of eccentrics and lunatics, whose every response to his enquiries piles confusion on confusion. At first effervescent and funny, things rapidly get more sinister, and his encounters with end in disaster. Whether she is a conventional femme fatale, or a product of his own fantasies, is finally quite unclear. What is clear is that he is doomed to an endless and fruitless pursuit of this alluring phantom.

It was an inspired move to bring in the old Coliseum team of David Pountney and Stefanos Lazaridis to stage . Much of their very best work - Rusalka, Hansel and Gretel - was set in the uncertain borderland between dream and reality. inhabits the same territory, and both the designs and characterisation conjure up this looking-glass world with remarkable sureness of touch. The basic setting is a steeply raked beach, strewn with deckchairs and a white grand piano. Above it hovers a vast mirror-cum-window that sometimes reflects the beach, sometimes reveals shadowy figures at the back of the stage. It works brilliantly in the first and last acts, less well for the forest of Act 2.

The work had clearly been thoroughly rehearsed, and was sung, acted and played with great assurance. Paul Nilon excelled as Mischa, Rebecca Caine made a strong impression as , and Alan Oke, Adrian Clarke and that marvellously sonorous bass Richard Angas were all outstanding in multiple character roles. This production of a deeply memorable work is one of the best things Opera North have done.

To 18 Oct (0113-245 9351), then touring to Manchester, Newcastle and Hull.

Anthony Arblaster

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