Breaking with convention at the beginning of its ‘Little Greats’ season, Opera North has not linked Pagliacci with Cavelleria rusticana in the same double bill. Mascagni’s classic verismo opera is scheduled for a later date. On this occasion, Pagliacci precedes a contrasting work by Ravel, a charming ballet-opera. Some connections between the two could be found however: a splendid, polished grandfather clock appears in both productions, as part of the set in Pagliacci, when it stands in a room set aside for the travelling players in a Calabrian village, and when it sings as a character in a young boy’s room in L'Enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Spells). Other connections might be found in the area of psychoanalysis.

Peter Auty (Canio) and Elin Pritchard (Nedda) © Tristram Kenton
Peter Auty (Canio) and Elin Pritchard (Nedda)
© Tristram Kenton

The leader of the Commedia dell'arte troupe, Canio (Peter Auty), first seen swanning in to a convincingly cluttered rehearsal space signing record sleeves, soon makes his violent paranoia apparent, a standard operatic ingredient, of course, which comes with well-known dangers for any director, in this case Charles Edwards. Psychotic episodes, especially those driven by alcohol, both real and enacted, can have a raw force that gets out of hand, which is what happens when he tears off his clown mask to tell his wife he is not acting, then stabs her and her lover to death. This ending is devastatingly effective, but well-controlled, like Canio’s aria "Vesti la giubba": Auty revealed himself as a fine spinto tenor, deeply moving yet balanced, with just a tiny hint of sobbing. Elin Pritchard superbly captured the volatility and passion of his wife Nedda, soaring effortlessly at the top of her range. When she rejected the stalker Tonio (a very seedy Richard Burkhard), who tried to grope her, she managed to pull off his belt and whip him with it. New Zealand baritone Philip Rhodes was really impressive as her pianist lover Silvio, singing with a rich tenderness. Tobias Ringborg conducted with sensitivity, following the emotional surges expertly.

Richard Burkhard (Tonio) and Peter Auty (Canio) © Tristram Kenton
Richard Burkhard (Tonio) and Peter Auty (Canio)
© Tristram Kenton

If Pagliacci has the appeal of a crime drama or an episode in a soap opera (and alarming clowns can appear in horror films too), L'Enfant et les sortilèges has the appeal of a charming fairy tale, with regular laughs and dancing (choreographer Theo Clinkard), but there is more to it than that. A rebellious little boy does not complete his homework and goes on a rampage after being punished by his mother, who in this production takes away his iPad. He attacks everything in his room, from the armchair to the crockery to the pictures on the wallpaper. He even sabotages the pendulum in the grandfather clock and is cruel to the cat.

Wallis Giunta (The Child) and Fflur Wyn (The Princess) © Tristram Kenton
Wallis Giunta (The Child) and Fflur Wyn (The Princess)
© Tristram Kenton

All his victims gradually come to life and rebuke him. He cries for his mother after feeling rejected, and all the animals gang up on him, but they end up on his side when he bandages up the paw of a wounded squirrel, joining him in calling out the word "Maman". Canadian mezzo Wallis Giunta, in the short trouser role of The Child, is remarkably agile, with an aggressive tinge to her powerful voice. Quirijn de Lang raises plenty of audience laughter as the offended Clock, brandishing its broken pendulum, and also as the Tom Cat who sings and dances with his mate in a hilarious miaowing duet. Fflur Wyn is a touching Princess from the storybook which the child has torn up, and John Graham-Hall is a very phallic Teapot. The dancing frogs are terrific. Mother is played relatively realistically by Ann Taylor in brief appearances at the beginning and the end.

Katie Bray (Louis XV Chair), John Savournin (The Armchair) and Wallis Giunta (The Child) © Tristram Kenton
Katie Bray (Louis XV Chair), John Savournin (The Armchair) and Wallis Giunta (The Child)
© Tristram Kenton

The psychological aspects can be spotted quickly, and are obviously well-known to the director, Annabel Arden. Freudian child psychologist Melanie Klein wrote a paper on the opera after reading about a Viennese performance in German in 1929. She stresses the child’s pleasure in destroying the objects he most desires and the feelings which would have been projected on the mother who has inflicted punishment being transferred to material objects. She never heard Ravel's music, though. This is delightfully playful and parodic, with ‘borrowings’ from Massenet to Monteverdi, a waltz and a foxtrot, in a series of musical portraits composed with a delicate lightness. These are skilfully interpreted by the orchestra conducted by Martin André.