The Opera North Orchestra: Viennese Tourbillon – Huddersfield Town Hall
Conductor: Nil Venditti
Opera North planners have a knack for scheduling cleverly balanced gigs and (in many cases) a mix of the familiar and the unexpected while still being perfectly accessible. However, this talent was not evident in the first half of an otherwise excellent concert in Huddersfield, which was due to be rehearsed on New Years Eve in Hull.
The decision to expand the program beyond the old business of Strauss, Strauss, Strauss and Lehar was, in itself, welcome, but it left the first half devoid of the traditional Viennese spirit. Things started off wonderfully with two plays by Johann Strauss the Younger. The young Italian-Turkish chef, Nil Venditti, brought the rhythmic flexibility required to The voices of spring and one of those Polkas Schnell that make you expect gunshots or explosions every few bars. These loud boys in the back (horns, brass and percussion), given their heads by Venditti, did whatever it took – and more.
But more than half of a rather short first set (40 minutes, including the enthusiastic and expressive introductions of Venditti) was devoted to a series of Contradances by Mozart and Ruckert Lieder by Mahler, both Viennese and entitled to their place, but, put together, taking the steam out of the program.
The Contradances, majestic, elegant and short (the first is a delicious redesign of No piu andrai from The Marriage of Figaro), had to be followed by something more substantial and dynamic. Instead, the Ruckert Lieders brought emotional intensity. After a half-hearted opening, Maire Flavin flies superbly on Um Mitternacht and followed it with a beautifully hushed Ich bin der Welt … (exquisite English horn). Deserves a place in any concert program, but not enough to send a New Year’s party audience to the bar in a festive mood: “It was a barrel of laughs,” grumbled a disgruntled gambler.
The second half was a delight – and on traditional lines, with the exception of Richard Rodgers Carousel Waltz, the orchestra full of Hollywood opulence in a long concert version. Venditti got sparkling performances from a series of Strauss favorites (a special mention for the woodwinds in Perpetual mobile) and Flavin delivered Lehar’s songs with the poise, theatricality, and sonorous upper register of a former northern opera Hanna Glawari in The cheerful widow. She bis on My beautiful lady, the orchestra on Tritsch Tratsch Polka and somehow The Radetski walk remained without playing – the Strauss family was represented only by Johann the Younger, no sign of his father or his brother.
There was so much to enjoy and admire – the orchestra in great shape, despite a few unfamiliar faces (no wonder given the turn of things) and a dynamic conductor who clearly fits in with the musicians – but the program would have benefited from the strange twist.
Revised December 30e 2021