One reviewer described this show as ‘brilliantly bonkers.’ I shall strive to be similarly generous, but I give you fair warning: I expect to fall some way short.
To begin at the beginning… We are gathered to witness the birth of Diktat, a strongman leader, caricaturing Vladimir Putin. An oversized pram stands centre stage, facing a fabulous backdrop projection of a visually stylised solar system. It may seem churlish to suggest that these projections (created by David Haneke) will be the stars of the show, but they certainly deserve their own curtain call.
As the planets swirl and glow, the Sun King, observed from right and left by masked plebeians, dances forward and raps three times on the boards with his staff (after the French manner). So we begin.
Intriguing and visually arresting.
Somewhere in classical Greek tragedy, the sage/prophet Tiresias observes to one of the blighted kings (Oedipus or Creon – it might apply to either), “If you’d died yesterday, you’d have died happy.” In that spirit let me say, had “The Masque of Might” ended here, I too might have judged it ‘brilliantly bonkers.’ Sadly, it goes on…and on.
David Poutney’s concept – to craft a climate-crisis opera by extracting and adapting songs from Purcell’s vast catalogue – is a strong one, but the realisation is fragmented, confused and overlong; his libretto clunks along. Rather than take on the whole task himself, Poutney needed a skilled librettist (witness Amanda Holden’s excellent work for ON’s current production of Verdi’s “Falstaff”), and an able dramaturg to shape an emotionally resonant and logically consistent plot.
Of course, strongman leaders are the last thing the world needs right now (Diktat is not alone, at one point the plebs don red baseball caps, unmistakably nodding to the MAGA movement). However, as Diktat wrestles wild boar, starts wars, tortures and murders dissidents, throwing in the occasional mocking denial of climate change (as the Earth burns), the possibility that industrial capitalism might have played some role in all this barely surfaces.
In the end, Joe Stalin rises from the grave to call Diktat to join him in hell, and (somehow) the world is born anew with bees and dancing flowers.
Along the way, there is Purcell’s fine music, often beautifully delivered – most notably by Anna Dennis (Elena/the Witch) and, in the role of principal villain, Diktat, the fine unstrained bass voice of Callum Thorpe. Opera North’s ever-reliable chorus is also on excellent form, especially in a memorable lament set in Diktat’s dungeon (take bow, chorus master, Anthony Kraus).
And, of course, there are those scintillating backdrops – hats off to Haneke.
Singers, dancers and musicians all deserve credit and receive warm ovations.
Will you think this production worthy of your precious time and cash? I’d call that the masque of might but probably won’t.
Opera North Masque of Might was at The Lowry, Salford on 16 November 2023. Opera North is at The Lowry until 18 November.