Arne’s Alfred at the Leeds Left Bank Opera Festival
Thomas Arne’s Alfred is described by the Northern Opera Group, which is currently performing it at the Leeds Left Bank Opera Festival, as “one of the greatest and most thrilling British operas of all-time”. Well, even allowing for the hype which these days is such a familiar part of the cultural scene, this is a rather absurd assertion; not the least because Alfred is a masque, rather than an opera. There is not much of a plot and little dramatic interaction between the characters. The arias and duets are predominantly expressions of patriotic sentiment, bewailing defeat or celebrating victory, of the kind one might find in an oratorio. The director David Ward tried too hard to turn the piece into an opera. There was too much inappropriate physical interplay between the protagonists and too much unnecessary stage business, such as strapping on, or removing, armour. A simpler, stylised approach would have been more successful.
That said, this was a highly enjoyable, and at times stirring, performance. First there was Arne’s engaging score. Bouncy tempi project the work forward, underpinning the military endeavours, but these are interspersed with more reflective passages in which emotion is expressed through the vocal ornamentation of melodic ideas. And a very talented group of young enthusiastic singers had been assembled. Outstanding among these was Catrin Woodruff. As Alfred’s consort Eltruda she had a truly regal presence, and an appropriately majestic rich soprano to match, negotiating the intricacies of the vocal line without difficulty and varying tone and colour when moving from fervour to sadness and despair. William Wallace in the title role has a fine tenor, well suited to baroque music. His clean tone, elegant phrasing and immaculate articulation gave much pleasure, though at times he did push his voice somewhat. Counter tenor Joe Bolger was a notable Prince Edward both vocally and dramatically and there were accomplished performances from Helen Stanley and William Branston as the two peasants.
The achievement of the soloists was all the more impressive because they had to contend with two handicaps arising from the venue, a converted church. The placing of the orchestra behind the singers with the conductor’s back to them led to occasional problems of coordination. And with the excessively reverberant acoustics and the high roof, the text was sometimes lost.
But these drawbacks were minor, relative to the overall impact of the performance. And who in the audience could not go home happy with a piece which has Rule Britannia as its finale, even though they might not be Brexiteers?