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The Snow Maiden review at Grand Theatre, Leeds – ‘mixed results’

Opera North's The Snow Maiden at Grand Theatre, Leeds. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
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Opera North’s spring season comprises works from three different European fairytale traditions. Two – Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel and Rossini’s Cinderella – are familiar, but the first, despite its popularity with Russian audiences, hasn’t had a full-scale professional staging in the UK for 60 years.

Here Rimsky-Korsakov’s allegory of barren winter giving way to fertile spring was sung in a fluent new English version by Alasdair Middleton.

At heart the opera is a conventional if regularly charming and often beautifully scored piece of 19th-century folksiness, though nowadays not only commentators but also audiences expect the complexity and ambiguity of such tales to register more than in the past. So director John Fulljames and his design team (Giles Cadle’s adaptable set will be common to all three productions) reasonably place traditional visual elements within a modern setting: the village scenes centre on a clothing factory where the folk costumes and wedding dresses worn by many of the characters are made, while the visiting trader Mizgir in the original’s prehistoric setting becomes a trucker.

It’s clever but nevertheless often uneasy, with some of the magic of the piece inevitably vanishing – except in Will Duke’s strikingly atmospheric videos. The most famous number in the opera – the rip-roaring Dance of the Tumblers – seems somewhat more prosaic when reduced to factory workers operating sewing machines.

Strong individual performances add character. Irish soprano Aoife Miskelly brings sweetness and finesse to the Snow Maiden herself. James Creswell is firmly focused as Father Frost. Heather Lowe perfectly suggests the laddish cockiness of village heartthrob Lel, with Elin Pritchard appropriately volatile as Kupava, whom the Snow Maiden usurps in the affections of Phillip Rhodes’s ardent Mizgir. Bonaventura Bottone has some effortful moments as the benign Tsar Berendey. There’s committed work from both orchestra and chorus, though Leo McFall’s conducting could do with more brilliance.

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John Fulljames’s staging of Rimsky-Korsakov’s fairytale blends ancient and modern with mixed results