“Hod on theer!/ What’s all this fuddle/ Would yore mind tellin?/ What’s all this shartin/ Rawpin and screamin?” This is Rossini refracted through Yorkshire dialect via the poet and broadcaster Ian McMillan. His skilful adaptation of The Barber of Seville, written for Bradford as part of a new opera festival, was premiered there in the Victorian splendour of a packed St George’s Hall. The audience’s chuckles began during the overture when a dozen men in flat caps – the chorus, as yet silent – soft-shoed through the auditorium, poring over a mock map of Bradford held upside down. We all need to be able to find the West Yorkshire town: in 2025 it becomes UK city of culture.
Whether this amiable enterprise was a prelude is hard to say. Sold as “Eyup! Rossini’s best loved comic opera put into proper Yorkshire”, it contains the seeds of something interesting, but was in many respects an enigma. How could a one-off semi-staging launch a festival that, some shopping centre pop-ups aside, had no other event? Was it ad hoc professional but not quite sharp enough? Or pro-am, in which case standards were respectable? Even Maria Callas – subject of an evening of documentaries on BBC Four last week marking her centenary – used to say that the first night is only the start of getting to know a work. This Barber’s first night was also the last, which is a pity. Callas also, provocatively, said some operas go on too long and should be cut. The Barber of Seville is indeed long and, in the spirit of McMillan’s adaptation, a trim might have been a good idea.
McMillan’s verbal dexterity was too often lost, except when a clarion ‘shurrup nar’ or ‘yer right apeth’ soared above the orchestra
The cast was led by Oscar Castellino, nimble-footed and diverting as the tricksterish barber Figaro. This Indian baritone was born in a car on a Mumbai street, studied physics, then switched to opera. He has also sung operatic arias with Indian tabla, but told Sky News his only experience of Yorkshire dialect until now was hearing Geoffrey Boycott’s cricket commentaries. In constant motion, clear-voiced and with a high percentage of words audible, he held the stage: the whirring engine that kept the show on the road. Felicity Buckland’s Rosina (a role she has sung with Surrey Opera) was spirited and convincing. The Bradford-based Ukrainian soprano Milana Sarukhanyan made an impact in her cameo role. The rest of the cast, most of whom are busy in smaller UK companies such as English Touring Opera, Garsington, Grange Park and Longborough, negotiated the Yorkshire text (in itself a feat of memory) and Rossini’s extreme technical challenges with mostly enjoyable, if uneven, results.
The audience was warmly disposed, and audibly appreciated this gesture in bringing opera to Bradford. It was not the youngest of crowds, but it has piqued local interest. The person in front of me last came to the venue in 1992, aged 15, to see Take That, then a boyband, now a heritage act. Take that indeed. On to The Marriage of Figaro, already promised as the next venture. Wherever funds are found, on whatever they are spent, surtitles must be a priority next time. McMillan’s verbal dexterity was too often lost, except when a clarion “bugger”, “shurrup nar” or “yer right apeth” soared above the lusty Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ben Crick. It was certainly unforgettable.
Fifteen miles away in Huddersfield, its annual contemporary music festival (HCMF) was near the end of another concentrated week of exploration, the likes of which scarcely exist elsewhere. While other festivals fight for survival (see recent accounts of Dartington and Cheltenham), HCMF clings on at the cliff edge of experiment. The festival will lose £75,000 from its annual funding from 2025 when a four-year Creative Europe project, Sounds Now, comes to an end. (Post-Brexit, the UK government opted out of the Creative Europe programme, despite being eligible to continue as a non-EU country.) As Graham McKenzie, Huddersfield’s chief executive and artistic director, told me, “scaled across hundreds of UK organisations that previously benefited from Creative Europe”, it’s another considerable amount of investment being cut from the UK’s cultural sector.
One of HMCF’s threads this year was music of Lithuania. In Apartment House, the UK has one of the most free-thinking and unfettered ensembles, founded in 1995 by the cellist Anton Lukoszevieze, who is himself British-Lithuanian. Their lunchtime concert at St Paul’s Hall presented four works, either for string quartet or with the addition of piano/keyboard, electric guitar and electronics. Shrî, by Egidija Medekšaitė (b.1979), sounds moving softly and almost imperceptibly, takes inspiration from raga and a call to morning prayer. Jurga Šarapova (b.1965) uses her own playful singsong voice, pre-recorded, for a work with ghostly echoes of John Lennon’s Imagine. Snowless NY 1949, by Ramūnas Motiekaitis, strings muted, in tiny episodes, recalls the Lithuanian diaspora in New York. If you ever thought music is just about sound, these works, each rarely rising above the level of hushed speech, tell you otherwise.
The final work was also the richest: the world premiere of Blue Dusk by Julius Aglinskas (b.1988). At first it seemed to burst into romantic melody, violin embarking on a downward pattern of five notes, warm toned and lyrical. Then this figure became more like a mantra, passed freely between three instruments, overlapping, interweaving, reshaped by every fresh harmonic encounter. Blue Dusk was recorded for future broadcast on Radio 3. Listen out, listen closely: always the best way.
Star ratings (out of five)
The Barber of Seville ★★★
Apartment House ★★★★