One of the biggest challenges facing writer Alasdair Middleton and composer Jonathan Dove, when Opera North asked them to come up with a new family opera on a “northern” subject, was to find a story that could be sung. Stories that can be sung must have certain ingredients. The pair eventually settled on the Finnish Kalevala book with its legends, magic spells and mythical creatures. The hero, Lemminkäinen harnesses the power of song to cast magic spells over the mortal threats on his epic journey to the north in search of a wife. Sibelius, of course, gave the stories an opulent symphonic and choral setting in his Four Lemminkäinen Legends, the best known of which is the Swan of Tuonela – the inspiration for the title of this opera. But Dove and Middleton were restricted to much leaner forces. This was to be a chamber opera deploying just six singers and a six piece instrumental ensemble. Opera North premiered Swanhunter in 2009 at their flexible alternative space, the handsomely restored Howard Assembly. The finished work, although musically and dramatically very powerful, I felt lacked entertainment value – bearing in mind the target audience.

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So how well have Opera North risen to the challenge with this brand new production of Swanhunter, remembering that Middleton and Dove’s previous Opera North commission – the hugely successful Adventures of Pinocchio – was a big, lavish show with spectacular transformation scenes.

The frank answer has to be very well indeed. Opera North have got into The Wrong Crowd! The Wrong Crowd being in this instance an innovative young theatre company that makes extensive use of puppetry and integrates the visual into the storytelling from the outset. The fruits of the partnership and the brilliant collaboration of creative minds is this enthralling new production directed by Hannah Mulder

The engaging picture book designs by Rachel Canning successfully turn ordinary mundane objects into magical things with the aid of just a little imagination. The campers’ haute- couture winter clothing, their sleeping bags and rucksacks inform the landscape. A semi-circle of tall pointed tents become mountains that our hero will scale on his epic journey to the north. The campers chat with each other and grill their sausages over the fire as darkness falls. An atmosphere of mystery and magic is already simmering as the audience make their way to their seats. There is no proscenium arch in the Howard Assembly Room and so Richard Howell‘s soft, atmospheric lighting casts a mysterious glow over the whole auditorium

Beams of light projected through the serrated lower edge of the suspended front cloth transform it into silhouettes of sunlit ice-capped mountain peaks – a stroke of genius achieved by the simplest of means.

The puppets portraying the mythical creatures encountered by Lemminkäinen, such as the menacing Devil’s Elk, the Devil’s Horse and the sacred Swan which lives around Death’s River are one of the glories of this production. All of them are operated with great skill by the singers. The mastiff-size dogs were so life-like, I even thought they must be real animals in puppet “skins” – but they’re not. The stupendous prancing Devil’s Horse is actually worn and operated by three artists, but arguably the most demanding puppetry assignment falls to Suzanne Shakespeare as the Swan. She skilfully manipulates a life-sized swan puppet while simultaneously delivering Dove’s lengthy and stratospherically high-lying wordless vocal line with needle sharp precision.

All the other creatures are silent characters save for a whimper from the dogs or a plaintive whinny and a snorting flaring of nostrils from the Devil’s Horse. The humans narrate Alasdair Middleton’s storytelling text as sung dialogue and frequently as a quartet. Projection of the text and the vocal characterisations are uniformly excellent.

Adrian Dryer as the adventure-seeking and philandering young Lemminkäinen has a sturdy presence and a clarion edge to his bright tenor. Ann Taylor as his Mother (a relative veteran among this young cast) deploys her rich mezzo to profound virtuoso effect in her long narrations. Rebecca Afonwy-Jones is a formidable and dark-toned Louhi, the woman whose daughter’s hand Lemminkäinen aims to win, after successfully meeting the fearsome challenges that she, Louhi, has set him. The youngest of Louhi’s sons is the initially harmless Soppy Hat – a dark, cutting-edge performance from Christopher Diffey.

Soppy Hat shoots Lemminkäinen with a poisoned arrow through the heart just as the latter is taking aim at the sacred Swan. Finally, Matthew Hargreaves as a suitably sepulchral-toned Death in a terrifying skull-mask and with long finger nails will give the youngsters an added frisson of excitement.

Sibelius created the sound of the mystical Swan on Death’s River (the Swan of Tuonela) for a hauntingly dark and melancholic cor anglais. Dove’s realisation for the human voice is not intended to be as mellifluous given the above the stave cruelly high vocal line which hits countless top E’s and F’s. Again, I pay tribute to Suzanne Shakespeare’s astonishing performance and purity of tone as the Swan, admirably complemented by the glittery rippling textures of the harp. The richly inventive orchestration for violin, French horn, accordion, double bass, harp and percussion is wondrously played by the instrumental ensemble conducted by Justin Doyle. Dove’s music is beautifully crafted, vividly descriptive, and endlessly resourceful. A particular example is the alarming snapping sound that accompanies the breaking of Lemminkäinen limbs as he is dismembered and consigned to the dark waters of Death’s River. Elsewhere, the accordion and fiddle-style violin playing give the music an appealing folksy character and there is a peppering of jazz from the double bass.

Opera North and The Wrong Crowd’s enthralling new co-production of Swanhunter has now been seen at ROH2 Linbury Studio in London and Opera North’s Howard Assembly Room in Leeds. The opera goes on tour to Poole Lighthouse, Cambridge Junction, Doncaster Cast, Salford Lowry, Alnwick Playhouse, Hexham Queen’s Hall, and Canterbury Gulbenkian before finishing at Harrogate Theatre on 3rd May. The performance is given without an interval and lasts around seventy minutes – not too long to leave the kids wanting more! The puppets are simply awesome…

4 stars

Geoffrey Mogridge

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