Review: Leeds Opera Festival, Much Ado About Nothing, Morley Town Hall , Saturday, August 24, 2019

THE mission of Northern Opera Group’s Leeds Opera Festival is to bring rare and wonderful works to communities across the city. The choice of Charles Villiers Stanford’s Much Ado About Nothing for this year’s Shakespeare themed Festival neatly fits the bill and so does Morley Town Hall. This ornate, shoe box shaped 600 seater Victorian concert hall is, like Stanford’s opera, a hidden gem.

Much Ado, to a libretto by Julian Sturgis, was the seventh of Stanford’s nine sadly long since forgotten operas. The Dublin born composer, Royal College of Music professor, organist and distinguished conductor at the Leeds Triennial Music Festivals from 1901-10 is best remembered today for his choral church music.

David Ward, Northern Opera Group artistic director, describes Stanford’s comedy as “a work that splendidly lifts off the page”. Christopher Pelly’s assured conducting immeasurably helps to achieve that lift off and his careful layering of dynamics reveals some ravishing orchestral detail. Painstakingly working from the original handwritten manuscript, Pelly has reduced Stanford’s symphonic orchestration down to a more viable 27 musicians which is ample for optimum balance with the singers bathed in this spacious acoustic. An excellent young cast deliver strong musical and dramatic characterisations, particularly Roger Patterson’s flexible high tenor as Claudio and Charlotte Hoather’s characterful soprano as Hero. This pair form the “first couple” in Sturgis and Stanford’s adaptation. Catrin Woodruff as Beatrice and Phil Wilcox as Benedict are equally pleasing as the “second couple”. Among the supporting roles, Jake Muffett created an imposing Leonato and Thomas D Hopkinson a suitably dark and villainous Don John. Edward Robinson as Don Pedro, William Branston as Borachio, Grace Watkins as Seacole, Blaise Malaba as the Friar and Louis Hurst as Dogberry all delivered stand-out performances.

Tiffany Dawson’s softly lit “black box” set decorated with three snow white wedding arches looks attractive and maximises the limited stage space. The costumes, a mixture of evening dress and smart casual wear, represent a somewhat puzzling update to the post Korean War period. Never mind though, the audience responded enthusiastically to a very fine performance of an operatic rarity. A historically significant musical occasion that will hopefully lead to renewed interest in the operas of Charles Villiers Stanford.

Geoffrey Mogridge