Arne’s Thomas and Sally at the Leeds Opera Festival
My thirst for live opera has, after over five months of deprivation, at last been assuaged. As part of the Northern Opera Group’s enterprising Leeds Opera Festival, Thomas Arne’s little piece Thomas and Sally was performed, bravely complying with the intimidating restrictions imposed by COVID-19 regulations. An open air playing area was constructed in public gardens adjacent to a main Leeds thoroughfare and therefore subject to the inevitable noise from bank holiday traffic. The weather was not ideal: although the rain held off, there was still a cold wind blowing. It is to the credit of the organisation and performers that, all these handicaps notwithstanding, so much pleasure was experienced by the small (though capacity) audience.
Arne’s short comedy suited the occasion and the circumstances extremely well. It comprises a simple story of a Squire who seeks to have his wicked way with a milkmaid Sally while her lover Thomas is away at sea. Of course, his efforts are thwarted when the sailor returns and all ends happily. Arne’s score is graceful and tuneful, comprising mainly ballad-like arias and is attractively complemented by Isaac Bickerstaff’s witty rhyming libretto.
A quartet of excellent young singers clearly relished the opportunity of communicating with real people. As Sally, Beth Moxon emitted some lovely soprano sounds (though she claims to be a mezzo). Elgan Llŷr Thomas revealed, in contrast, a baritonal quality to his plangent tenor as he robustly described – and put to good use – his maritime adventures. His imposing stage presence may have reflected his experience with English National Opera. As the Squire, Michael Vincent Jones deployed his penetrating tenor to good effect, articulating his dastardly intentions with clarity and vigour. Naomi Rogers enjoyed her task of slyly assisting his attempts at seduction as, with a twinkle in her eye and a smirk in her voice, she left no doubts as who would next enjoy his favours and financial rewards.
There was no orchestra, so we missed Arne’s inventive use of horns and clarinets in the hunting scene, but could only be grateful that Jenny Martins at the electric piano managed to keep things bouncing merrily along when her fingers must have been cold. Emma Black’s production had to rely on only a few basic props, yet the simple movements she devised projected successfully the flavour of the piece. All in all, a courageous venture with a very positive outcome.