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Opera North 2

The Dwarf and Love's Luggage Lost

Seeing all eight of Opera North's little known (except for Pagliacci) one acters, in London for a week, has been a strange experience, with reactions varying from identification to alienation. Please click back to my earlier review.

It is salutary to read the wildly conflicting reviews collected by TheOperaCritic and to be found via Google. We found most of the double bills we saw disappointing (the pairings have been randomised) but my last visit, for farcical Rossini followed by tragic Zemlinsky, was very satisfying.

In Zemlinsky's The Dwarf, the problem of presenting convincingly a short, repellently ugly tenor was effectively inverted in David Pountney's solution, rather as in a play (was it Brecht's?) in which all normal people had pointed heads and round heads were ridiculed.

Pountney had his Infanta and her playmates as ungainly grotesques, and the 'toy' dwarf looking (to us) elegant and 'normal' in standard dress-suit, Paul Nilon singing beautifully and emoting despair when he finally sees his 'ugly' self; I went along with this easily, c.p. It's rigorously facetious to begin with, full of over-the-top costumes and silly business - - with Paul Nilon touching as the Dwarf, reinvented as an upper-class twit in white
tie and tails
(Andrew Clements in The Guardian)

The Dwarf is a real, substantial opera (c.p. Rachmaninoff's Francesca da Riminini, which isn't) - just the right length, with a sumptuous polystylistic orchestral score which eschewed fashionable 'isms' of the time. Cellist George Kenneway gave a perfect pre-performance introductory talk, placing the long forgotten composer for those many who didn't know his music well, and giving the story of the 'ugly but fascinating Zemlinsky' and his rejection for Mahler by Alma (Schindler); this opera a belated 'revenge' manifesto. He told us how Zemlinsky thought himself 'modern' but was relegated and passed by, being dubbed 'post-romantic', as were other fine composers of similar ilk such as Franz Schmidt.

Stephanie Krahnefeld was perfect as the flighty, insesitive and spoilt Infanta, Paul Nilon (a tower of strength in the season) a mellifluous Dwarf who really engaged your sympathies, and Majella Cullagh notable as the only one who could see into and through the tragedy.

Rossini's Love's Luggage Lost, an early farsa of confusion piling on confusion (c.1813) is nicely updated to the emotionally fraught setting of an airport, not the departure lounge as in Flight, but by the luggage carousel, from which it is all too easy to pick up the wrong case!

Amanda Holden's adaptation is very funny, and by the time they got to London, the costume changing routines were slick, with the singers' ensemble with David Parry and the orchestra commendably excellent. The music may have been unknown, but its idiom was familiar and so the updated staging was a counterpoint that never jarred with the music.

A word about the "surtitles" at the sides of the stage. They are necessary, whether or not the singing is in English, but were decidedly arbitrary in this season. When provided, they were oddly inadequate, with long gaps and key phrases not titled at all; one was continually glancing (away from the stage) to see the next words to appear. [This is being done now far better at Opera Holland Park.]

The Dwarf made an ideal ending to our mixed but thought provoking week at the opera, Johan Engels's sets giving us many vivid visual memories, as did too the productions of David Pountney and Christopher Alden, and the uniformly fine musical direction of Martin André and David Parry.


© Peter Grahame Woolf