Opera North – Swanhunter

Jonathan Dove
Swanhunter – Opera to a libretto by Alasdair Middleton

Lemminkäinen – Andrew Rees
Lemminkäinen’s Mother – Yvonne Howard
Louhi/Ensemble – Francis Bourne
Dog/Death/Smith/Ensemble – Graeme Broadbent
Swan/Ensemble – Elizabeth Cragg
Dog/Soppy Hat/Death’s Son/Ensemble – Nicholas Sharrat

Belinda Hammond (violin), Murray Grainger (accordion), Rhian Evans (harp), Dave Tollington (horn), Vera Jovanovic (double bass) & Michael Harper (percussion)
Stuart Stratford

Clare Whistler – Director
Dody Nash – Designer
Simon Bennison – Lighting

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 21 November, 2009
Venue: Howard Assembly Room, Grand Theatre & Opera House, Leeds

I travelled north, just like the hero of “Swanhunter”, to see this new family opera by the long-standing partnership of composer Jonathan Dove and librettist Alasdair Middleton. It is an Opera North commission, and follows on from the pair’s wonderful “The Adventures of Pinocchio”, which Opera North premiered last year, and which will return to the repertoire next season (hoorah!).

“Swanhunter” is a much more modest affair, but – perversely perhaps – grapples with an even older and bigger tale, Finland’s national epic “Kalevala” and, particularly, the story of rash hero Lemminkäinen, who leaves his mother to find a girl in the North, as they are reputed to make the sun sigh and moon ache. Although principally aimed at a young audience, older viewers may know the tale from Sibelius’s four orchestral tone poems, collected (usually in a confusing order) as Four Lemminkäinen Legends.

Dove and Middleton here use just six singers, six instrumentalists and a conductor. A tower stands in one corner of the open acting area, fronted by what seem like slabs of ice broken from a floe. With its high-flying solo violin part there are similarities to Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale”, but – true to the original commission to write on a Northern subject – this is a cold, icy tale rather than the Russian’s central European selling-your-soul-to-the-devil story. The use of accordion and Dove’s trademark glistening bell-like riffs for the percussionist also mark it out as distinctive.

Yvonne Howard, as Lemminkäinen’s Mother, is worried for her son, seeing beyond his cockiness to the dangers he might face. He tries to set her mind at rest by putting a spell on the cut his knife makes in the door. Only when it bleeds will she know he is in danger. When he gets to the North he charms a pack of dogs with his singing, then meets the dogs’ owner, Queen of the North, Louhi, whose daughter is lauded. She says Lemminkäinen can meet her daughter if he completes a task – to hunt the Devil’s elk.

For such a hero as Lemminkäinen, the animal – with a pair of shovel for hooves and long-handled secateurs for antlers – proves no problem and he eagerly returns to Louhi, who sets him another task: to ride the Devil’s horse (lacrosse sticks with red lights on). He too accomplishes this in fine style, but a further challenge awaits; that of shooting the Swan (Elizabeth Cragg in a white parka) on Death’s river (Sibelius’s Swan of Tuonela) – unaware that Soppy Hat has his own revenge planned, and it is Lemminkäinen that is shot.

Thus, the knife cut on his mother’s door starts to bleed, and his mother travels North to find him and piece him back together (the upturned ice blocks turn out to be red andjigsaw-like), with the hope that Lemminkäinen has – eventually –learnt his lesson.

Running without interval (75 minutes) in Opera North’s handsome reclaimed multi-purpose Howard Assembly Hall, “Swanhunter” is unpatronising and involving (not least for the children in the audience). Clare Whistler directs with an inventive economy, allowing one’s imagination to create a lot of the effects (a whole forest from a washing line draped with strips of green), although I could have done with a little more colour in the costumes: drab military green, apart from Yvonne Howard’s bluey parka and the swan’s white garb. Andrew Rees makes a likeable hero and is matched by a great ensemble, ably conducted by Stuart Stratford.

With Dove’s lyrical songlines and Middleton’s clear story-telling, “Swanhunter” is a great addition to the repertoire, and the fact that it is loadable in a van and tourable makes it even more welcome.

  • Performances at Bridlington (5 & 6 December), Berwick (11 December) and Salford’s Lowry (13 December)

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