Deanne Meek as Octavian in <i>Der Rosenkavalier</i> – Opera North 2002 © Stephen Vaughan
Deanne Meek as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier – Opera North 2002
© Stephen Vaughan
Four of the six staged productions in Opera North's 2016-7 season are new: an impressive tally for a regional, touring company. You can think of the season in three movements: a dramatic opener, a fairytale second and a coda that resolves the two; within each movement, there’s plenty to tempt your aural and visual palette. From September to December, the company is staging a trio of productions, one each in German, Italian and English, each portraying drama of a very different kind.

Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier offers one of opera's more unusual mixes of moods. On the one hand, there is comedy of manners as the young, innocent and rich Sophie is courted by the oafish Baron Ochs (yes, it does mean "Ox" in German), degenerating into riotous bedroom farce as various other characters plot the Baron's undoing. But the parallel story of the glamorous but "of a certain age" Marschallin is a touching, bittersweet reflection on ageing, as she contemplates the inevitable end of her affair with the youthful Octavian as he will most certainly leave her for Sophie. All this happens to the accompaniment of Strauss' opulent late Romantic score, to be conducted by Opera North’s new Music Director Aleksandar Markovic. David McVicar’s production is well known and well loved.

You’ll get two operas for the price of one in the Puccini double bill of Il tabarro and Suor Angelica. Il tabarro is a dark, gritty tale of adultery and murder: David Pountney’s production is revived by Michael Barker-Caven, who also directs Suor Angelica, and of the most heart-rending stories in any opera as Angelica, confined to a convent against her will, discovers after years of waiting that her illegitimate baby has died. The confrontation between Angelica and the vengeful Princess, her aunt, is generally guaranteed to leave you shaking with fury at the aunt. In Opera North's production, it gets two excellent singers in the shape of Anne-Sophie Duprels and Patricia Bardon.

<i>Il tabarro</i> – Opera North 2004
Il tabarro – Opera North 2004
The all-female cast of Suor Angelica is balanced by the all male cast of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, in what should be an important new production for Opera North. Roderick Williams sings the title role, while Alan Oke takes on the tormented Captain Vere, while Billy’s nemesis Claggart will come from the sepulchral voice of company Alastair Miles. If Orpha Phelan’s production comes even close to matching the quality of Opera North’s Peter Grimes, this will be one you absolutely shouldn’t miss.

Alan Oke as Captain Vere in Billy Budd
Alan Oke as Captain Vere in Billy Budd
This set of productions will spend September and October in Opera North’s home base of Leeds; in November, it will tour around three more cities in the north of England: Newcastle-on-Tyne, then Salford followed by Nottingham. On 30 November, Il tabarro & Suor Angelica and Billy Budd move to Scotland, with a pair of performances of each at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre.

January sees the start of the season’s second set of three operas, this time focussed on fairytale. All three of the operas are in new productions; two of them are familiar fare, but the third is most certainly not.

Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel arguably has the strongest cast of the whole season, with Katie Bray and Fflur Wyn in the title roles and Stephen Gadd and Susan Bullock as their parents. Although Hansel and Gretel is sometimes done as a cheerful romp, Edward Dick’s production promises to be anything but, exploring the darker psychology in the opera; the fact that Bullock is singing both the role of the mother and of the witch in the woods may give a clue as to his intent. If it’s cheerfulness you’re after, your better bet will be Aletta Collins take on Rossini’s Cinderella (aka La Cenerentola), where you will get frothy comedy, a happy ending and Rossinian bel canto all in one package.

Stephen Gadd © Richard Smith
Stephen Gadd
© Richard Smith
But for a darker, more emotional and altogether more exotic fairytale, go for Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden. The folk story is a disturbing one, with characters mixed in a particularly Russian fashion between commoners, royalty (the Tsar and his entourage) and the supernatural (in the shape of the Snow Maiden's parents Spring-Beauty and Grandfather Frost). The Snow Maiden of the title craves human love and is able to win the love of the human Mizgir, but danger threatens: her heart is made of ice and she will die if she is warmed by the sun.

Inexplicably, Rimsky’s fairytale operas are hardly ever staged in the UK, so this is a great opportunity to hear one of the masters of orchestral and vocal colour apply himself to a genre in which he excelled. The director is John Fulljames, who has impressed in Covent Garden with productions ranging from The Firework-Maker’s Daughter to Mahagonny.

Opera North’s fairytale cycle starts in Leeds on 21 January and runs until the end of February. In March, it tours to Newcastle, Salford and Belfast, reaching Nottingham towards the end of March.

Fairytale and high drama are brought together for the season’s closing production: a “concert staging” of Turandot, conducted by Aleksandar Markovic. Don’t be put off by the “in concert” tag: Opera North’s concert stagings of The Ring have met with almost universal acclaim. Turandot will round off the season in style.

You can see the full season here.

This preview was sponsored by Opera North.