Trees crashing down and constant rain might have knocked the glamour out of Valentine’s Day for celebrants in some places, but in Leeds, in the Grand Theatre at least, all the turbulence was in hearts and voices. The evening was congenial, the equivalent of a trip to a large restaurant with an extensive menu, in which some of those in the kitchen had appeared on Masterchef. There had to be something to relish, and nothing was really unpalatable. The whole of this tribute to the capital of France was in itself an elaborate starter, with references all the way through to nineteenth century bohemian life, a taste of what is to come in April with Puccini’s version of La bohème.

Jeni Bern and Peter Auty © Richard Hubert Smith
Jeni Bern and Peter Auty
© Richard Hubert Smith

We were reminded that another opera with the same name exists, by Ruggero Leoncavallo, which is also based on Henri Murger’s collection of vignettes, Scènes de la vie de bohème, and languishes unjustly in the shadows. In a first half devoted to operatic extracts, one of the tasty treats is a duet from Act III of this version between Musetta and Marcello: Romanian soprano Gabriela Iştoc (cast as one of two Mimìs for April) and tenor Peter Auty brought a wonderful dramatic intensity to this, following on from Auty’s excellent “Testa adorata” by the same composer. Musetta’s “Quando me'n vo'”, most effectively delivered by Jeni Bern, and the stirring quartet which follows Mimì's “Donde lieta uscì” make it clear why Puccini’s opera is usually preferred, and why Leoncavallo must have been spitting feathers after its great success.

Gabriela Iştoc and Chorus of Opera North © Richard Hubert Smith
Gabriela Iştoc and Chorus of Opera North
© Richard Hubert Smith

The evening began with interesting projections on a front gauze – a text frame from a silent film, with black and white photos – and the simple set (designer Ana-Sofia Londono) is dominated by items suspended on lines relevant to the Paris of one and a half centuries ago, like parasols, to call up the Japonisme fashion of the time. Even so, there was a disconnected quality about the first half, made up of short scenes which remain in isolation. This causes even the very capable chorus (ladies only here) to lose some power. I was expecting the energetic Geoffrey Dolton to provide more of a narrative link, to address us with “Mesdames, messieurs” perhaps. He was an underemployed master of ceremonies.  

Geoffrey Dolton © Richard Hubert Smith
Geoffrey Dolton
© Richard Hubert Smith

The Paris of the second half was much more recognisable as our city of dreams, flirting and cafés full of smoke from Gauloise cigarettes, though of course these would have to be puffed away at surreptitiously nowadays, because the law has changed. The set was all tables and chairs, chansons replaced arias, and the four principals took the opportunity to reinterpret the famous ones. We heard more of Dolton’s terrific baritone and saw him in a fuller role. Iştoc’s version of Edith Piaf’s signature song La Vie en Rose was absolutely delicious – subtle and beautiful, understated even. She had so much control, and her high notes had such purity. Equally impressive were Jeni Bern’s exuberant Piaf renditions. James Holmes at the piano was far too accomplished for any normal café even though he leads its band, and the chorus was an ever-elegant bunch of happy customers. I was toying with the idea that this half on its own would work well in the smaller Howard Assembly Room next door to the Grand, when Dassin’s Les Champs Elysées was in full swing. In the course of this there was a striking dramatic touch (director Rosalind Parker with Annabel Arden) when a back curtain parted to reveal the full orchestra on stage, conducted by David Parry, most appropriate for a large auditorium.

It was a good night out and it didn't matter that some of the programme was predictable. There were plenty of laughs for Auty’s Orpheus as he inflicted his latest concerto on Bern’s Eurydice, who was also persecuted by the brilliant David Greed with his violin. There were few langueurs, in spite of a piece in the programme with a focus on the poet Verlaine and a passing mention of Baudelaire. The evening concluded with Offenbach, naturally: the infernal galop from Orpheus in the Underworld, what else?