Opera Economy Class

By Tanner, Michael | The Spectator, May 11, 2013 | Go to article overview

Opera Economy Class


Tanner, Michael, The Spectator


Joshua Opera North Don Carlo Royal Opera House, in rep until 25 May Why stage a Handel oratorio, or anyone else's for that matter? The recent urge to do it, with Bach's Passions - even, I'm told, with Messiah - suggests a further incursion of TV into our lives, the inability to absorb anything that isn't partly or primarily visual. At least Handel's Joshua, which Charles Edwards directs and designs in a new Opera North production, is bellicose so there is a fair amount of action, though the most indelible parts of it are the choruses, some of them, strangely, sung with scores in hand, some not.

The setting is post-second world war, yet another production with an excuse for dressing the characters in dowdy clothes suggestive of a Ken Loach movie. There's a conflict between what we see and the long and excellent programme note in which Ruth Smith argues that Handel's contemporaries wouldn't have given the Jews a second thought, but would have taken the whole story, including the Ark of the Covenant, to be symbolic of crises that Great Britain was passing through in the early 18th century.

That would have made for a most interesting take on Joshua, but inevitably, I suppose, Edwards decided that the oratorio could be made into a contribution to the recent history of Israel.

It is an economy production, which is to be welcomed, so if you feel like going and just listening you won't be missing a lot. The musical level is high, or on the first night became high after a shockingly ragged opening, in which the conductor and the chorus were in open conflict about the tempo. Once it settled down the chorus was, as always, superb. And so was most of the solo singing, especially from the performers of the two characters who constitute the love interest, Achsah, the leading Israelite Caleb's daughter, and the young Othniel, who almost neglects his bloodthirsty duties to spend quality time with Achsah, stripping and sharing a spliff. Jake Arditti is Othniel, with a pleasant, penetrating countertenor voice, and other assets; Achsar is Fflur Wyn, a youthful veteran with a strong stage presence and the kind of lovely soprano that I'm happy to listen to as long as there isn't too much for it to do. Stephen Layton conducts vigorously, and the slightly muted effect of the opening night may well disappear early in the run.

Verdi's Don Carlo, in Nicholas Hytner's 2008 production, has a super-starry revival at the Royal Opera, in Verdi's five-act version, but without any of the noble and explanatory additions that Andrew Porter discovered in the early 1970s. …

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