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Romantic comedy and dark desires at sea.

Opera North at Newcastle Theatre Royal until tonight DER ROSENKAVALIER The exotic nature of opera is to the fore in Richard Strauss's famous creation - with words (libretto) by Hugo von Hofmannsthal - which sails like a great galleon across four hours of an evening.

With a story which could be told in the time it takes to jump over a puddle, it appears in no particular hurry to get anywhere.

But the voyage, as so often, is the thing and those four hours, in three acts wrapped around two intervals, pass as they would do on a pleasurable cruise.

Der Rosankavalier (The Knight of the Rose) was premiered in Dresden in 1911 to great acclaim, but it's set in the 18th century.

This revival benefits from an excellent (and large) cast and the company's acclaimed orchestra under new music director Aleksandar Markovic.

It begins in racy style with a couple in bed. Love has been in the making.

Ylva Kihlberg This is The Marschallin (Swedish soprano Ylva Kihlberg) and her 17-year-old male lover, Octavian, sung by Australian mezzo-soprano Helen Sherman who adopts a convincing male swagger.

Buffoonery enters the stage in the large, blustering and self-satisfied form of aptly named Baron Ochs (ox in English - simultaneous translations of the sung German run on screens beside the stage), a relative of the Marschallin.

Ochs falls immediately for Octavian, now disguised as a maid, despite waiting for a date with another young woman, Sophie von Faninal, daughter of a family of nouveau riche social climbers who are offering her on a plate.

Then you might go, eh? The Marschallin, already agonising about the age gap, suggests Octavian act as a kind of gobetween, or rosenkavalier, presenting a rose to young Sophie on the baron's behalf.

Wise move, not. Sophie and Octavian are, of course, immediately smitten with each other. There are loads of characters and all are excellently brought to life. Henry Waddington sings beautifully and moves delicately as the preposterous Ochs. There are funny moments and moments of quiet tenderness, as when the stately Marschallin laments the ageing process at the end of act one.

All leads to a climactic soaring aria by The Three Sopranos - Kihlberg, Sherman and sweetvoiced Fflur Wyn as Sophie - which heralds the final ovation. There is one more performance tonight.

David Whetstone BILLY BUDD Based on a story by Herman Melville, reworked into a libretto by EM Forster, Benjamin Britten's opera comes trailing clouds of literary glory, reflecting a specific historical period (1797) and carrying a weight of potential interpretations.

There are no female roles, very little humour (apart from the officers' ironically written anti-French sentiments) and the only set is the deck of the ship onto which unwilling sailors are being press-ganged into service.

So far, so dour - especially as the story involves the radical injustice of harsh punishment under an inflexible system of authority.

Yet this production managed, with an understated efficiency of staging, to draw out the universal notion of transcendent goodness that informs the story and infuses the music with a radiance.

When a beautiful and goodnatured young man, Billy (sung with open-hearted clarity by Roderick Williams), is pressed to serve on a warship, his presence calls up jealously, hatred, trickery and, ultimately, murder.

Britten's music has to place all this in a nautical atmosphere at once brooding with discontent, coloured by flashes of patriotic fervour and held together by an undemonstrative comradeship.

An absolute high spot comes when Claggart, the master-at-arms, sings with sonorous intensity of a desire for destruction, clearly based on the impossible desires aroused by Billy, which is so instinctive that he cannot explain it.

When the wonderful Alastair Miles took his curtain call, the boos from a delighted audience were a sign of thorough appreciation.

The third, perhaps most difficult role is that of Captain Vere, whose reverie opens and closes the narrative. Alan Oke sings as though he is thinking, working with Britten's difficult phrasing to convey the process of ideas through a troubled mind in an impossible situation.

The humane gravitas of his dignified, unemphatic stage presence provided the pivot for this emotionally and technically enthralling interpretation.

Gail-Nina Anderson


Ylva Kihlberg
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Nov 5, 2016
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