Opera North has for some years now been convincing its public that there should be no conflict between musical theatre and opera, as shown by recent magnificent productions, for example Carousel. Richard Rodgers is already in the company's embrace along with the likes of Mozart, so it was inevitable that the seductive genius Cole Porter should join them in this collaboration with Welsh National Opera.

Jeni Bern as Katharine, Quirijn de Lang as Petruchio © Alastair Muir
Jeni Bern as Katharine, Quirijn de Lang as Petruchio
© Alastair Muir

He has been treated with the same enormous respect: the orchestral score of Kiss Me Kate has been painstakingly restored and added to (“Too Darn Hot” now has seventeen new bars) by American conductor David Charles Abell, who sorted through a pile of ink manuscripts from the original 1948 production together with archived documents in Porter's own hand, and the performers are both classical specialists and veterans of the musical stage. In addition, the director, Jo Davies, directed both Carousel and The Marriage of Figaro in the Leeds Grand Theatre. Because of her intelligent and perceptive lead and the overwhelming energy and expertise of the cast, the result is sheer joy.

Tiffany Graves as Bianca, Ashley Day as Lucentio © Alastair Muir
Tiffany Graves as Bianca, Ashley Day as Lucentio
© Alastair Muir
The backs of huge, brown flats, similar to those used in The Marriage of Figaro, dominate the set (Set and Costume Designer Colin Richmond) for the backstage scenes, when Fred Graham and his ex-wife Lilli Vanessi (Quirijn De Lang and Jeni Bern) are furiously bickering, and a lush and colourful tapestry in a late medieval style is used for the scenes when they take on the characters of Petruchio and Kate in Fred's version of The Taming of the Shrew. The sensuality of their sometimes violent relationship is starkly brought out in the cod-Shakespearian scenes, when they are at their most convincing. De Lang plays a character with similar chauvinistic attitudes to Count Almaviva, the one he played in Figaro, but here he is more flamboyant and much warmer, and really moving when it is his turn to sing “So In Love”. Bern is equally moving when she sings the piece earlier in the show, proving, if there was ever doubt amongst all the burlesque, that she is a gem in any operatic context. She is in perfect comic control for her mock coloratura at the end of Act I, which is disrupted by a gun shot, in a well-managed moment straight out of a Marx Brothers movie. De Lang's interpretation of “Where Is The Life That Late I Led” is fast, witty and minutely segmented, so that every ounce of wit is extracted.

Joseph Shovelton (top) and John Savournin as 1st and 2nd gunmen © Alastair Muir
Joseph Shovelton (top) and John Savournin as 1st and 2nd gunmen
© Alastair Muir
If Bern represents the mainstream operatic soprano, then Tiffany Graves as Lois Lane/Bianca represents the musical theatre side as an archetypal 'hoofer', an adept dancer and a singer in a sporadically brash style which brings to mind Ethel Merman in old recordings. Her cartoonish reactions, infectious smile and agility make her a memorable Bianca, who at some points becomes a complete show-stealer, as in “Always True to You In My Fashion”, which is served up in delightful instalments. Ashley Day as Bill Calhoun/Lucentio sings as well as he dances – beautifully – and makes an excellent partner for Graves. He is cringingly superb as a young fifties crooner wowing the bobby-soxers (a giggling mass of Chorus members) with his song to Bianca, a name which, significantly, he rhymes with 'spanka'. The other possible show-stealers in any production of this musical play are, of course, the two gangsters, here played by Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin, who do not disappoint: their “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”, delivered with plenty of comic business (and no tap dancing) in front of the curtain, is really hilarious.

The famous spanking scene in Act I, after Petruchio has been kicked and bitten by Kate, is dealt with briefly, and several characters, mainly female, receive casual bottom-slaps at various points. Here, in the context of Kiss Me Kate, set in the world and attitudes of the forties and fifties, it is all legitimate, adding to the sense of period as well as the humour. Few in the audience would have pondered deeply any socio-sexual implications or thought much about the slightly shaky plot, because they were too busy laughing and applauding. We can thank Cole Porter for that, and a terrific version of this classic musical play.

Quirijn de Lang as Petruchio (centre) © Alastair Muir
Quirijn de Lang as Petruchio (centre)
© Alastair Muir