Pairing two short operas which fall into the ‘lesser known’ category – Janáček’s Osud (Destiny) and Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti – as part of Opera North’s Little Greats season makes sense thematically. Both deal with wretched marriages and wistful memories, and are rooted in the real-life experiences of the composers.

John Graham-Hall (Živný) and Rosalind Plowright (Míla’s Mother) © Alastair Muir
John Graham-Hall (Živný) and Rosalind Plowright (Míla’s Mother)
© Alastair Muir

Osud, directed by Annabel Arden, is a kind of extended reverie which becomes almost nightmarish, and the strain of following a clunky, complex plot strangely compounded this effect. It is about an opera within an opera. Živný, a composer, has had a loving relationship with Míla and they have produced a son, Doubek. Míla’s interfering mother had done her best to split them apart and match her daughter with someone other than a poor musician, but the two get married anyway, ending up living with the mother. Živný, a version of Janáček himself, writes an opera about what has happened, which although it seems complete, lacks a final act. This opera is eventually rehearsed by a class of music students in a conservatoire, where the grown-up Doubek is a student. When they ask Živný to explain the work and confirm that Lensky, the composer in his opera, represents himself, he collapses under the weight of his recollections and sees a vision of his dead wife as a storm rages outside. Considerable amounts of energy and imagination were thrown into making this work, and surprisingly, it just about did.

Giselle Allen (Míla Valková) and members of the Chorus of Opera North © Alastair Muir
Giselle Allen (Míla Valková) and members of the Chorus of Opera North
© Alastair Muir

The versatile chorus was largely responsible for this, as the milling crowds in a spa town, represented by a huge enlargement of a black and white postcard, and as the music students who, strangely, come from the Communist era, wearing red scarves like ageing young pioneers. Tenor John Graham-Hall as Živný excelled in his dominant role, his clear tones and dramatic charisma bringing much credibility to a difficult character. He was wincingly effective in Act 2 as he viciously berated Míla (an impressive Giselle Allen) and then begged for her forgiveness. I greatly admired Rosalind Plowright as Míla’s Mother, who was at her best when she was mad, dressed in a fur coat, with wild hair and a sumptuously full voice. She plunged over a balcony with her daughter too soon in Act 2, a standard operatic device which should perhaps have ended the show. The final Act 3 is too drawn out: its climax, when the composer is agonizing in front of the students and an embarrassed Doubek (Warren Gillespie) seemed like an unnecessary addition.

Joseph Shovelton, Fflur Wyn and Nicholas Butterfield (The Trio) © Alastair Muir
Joseph Shovelton, Fflur Wyn and Nicholas Butterfield (The Trio)
© Alastair Muir

The shorter Trouble in Tahiti, directed by Matthew Eberhardt, was an exciting delight, an early Bernstein work which brings to mind the later West Side Story with its jazzy passages and beautiful lyricism. I also thought of the television series Mad Men, with its detailed, well-researched representations of the dress and social mores of more than half a century ago. It gives a jaundiced and lightly satirical view of the American suburban life which post-war Americans were supposed to aspire to, with a central couple, Sam and Dinah, who lead empty, almost loveless lives. Dinah accuses Sam of having a relationship with his secretary and both of them pay only token attention to their son, Junior.

Wallis Giunta (Dinah) with Nicholas Butterfield, Fflur Wyn and Joseph Shovelton (The Trio) © Alastair Muir
Wallis Giunta (Dinah) with Nicholas Butterfield, Fflur Wyn and Joseph Shovelton (The Trio)
© Alastair Muir

Bernstein, typically, jumps from one musical style to another, from popular to classical and back again. A smooth, jazzy trio began the show, and it was so seductive – Fflur Wyn, Joseph Shovelton and Nicholas Butterfield came straight out of a 1950s radio studio. Baritone Quirijn de Lang employed his dark baritone and considerable acting ability to great effect as the office-bound executive Sam, a believer in the survival of the fittest in a ruthless business world. He is a really flexible performer, well-suited to comic parts as well as serious ones. For me, the abiding memory is of the brilliant soprano Wallis Giunta as a bemused Dinah in a fifties A-line dress, who gives Bernstein’s lyrics the treatment they well deserve. She was at her prime when she was with her psychoanalyst talking about her dream of a garden which has degenerated into a mass of weeds, in which she hears a voice describing a perfect garden of ideal love and harmony. The perfect garden could be in an imaginary South Seas: with her husband, she decides to go to a product of the Hollywood dream factory, a movie called Trouble in Tahiti, as a temporary escape.