A reworking of Carmen by a director who likes to explore the dark side of a work is on stage this spring, says Bernard Lee

David Pountney, director of The Portrait for Opera North
David Pountney, director of The Portrait for Opera North

The popular and obscure in Opera North season

OPERA North’s winter season resumes on Monday with a new production of Bizet’s Carmen at the Grand Theatre in Leeds.

Lithuanian bass-baritone Kostas Smoriginas appearing in Opera North's Escamillo

Lithuanian bass-baritone Kostas Smoriginas appearing in Opera North's Escamillo

For those who have seen enough Carmens to last a lifetime, however, a totally obscure opera by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, The Portrait, may be a more appealing prospect. It opens on February 2,

Still, it is the enormously popular Bizet opera, which continues to survive all the weird and wonderful treatment, good, bad and indifferent productions thrown at it, which will put bums on seats, as they say.

Opera North’s new staging, sung in French, is in the hands of the much-vaunted young London-based American director Daniel Kramer, whose production philosophy is exploring the dark side of a work.

Heather Shipp is cast as Carmen with the American mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy taking over when the production is revived in Opera North’s spring season in April/ May.

Peter Auty, the boy soprano who actually sang Walking in the Air (The Snowman) in the film and now a highly respectable tenor, is Don Jose. Peter Wedd takes the May performances.

Similarly, the French soprano Anne Sophie Dupreis is Micaela, except in the April when Elizabeth Atherton sings the part.

The Lithuanian bass-baritone Kostas Smoriginas, now based in London, sings the graveyard role of Escamillo in all 24 performances over the two seasons.

Except in the April, when Andrea Licata wields the baton, Andreas Delphs is the conductor.

So who is this Weinberg?

Well, for a start, there are many complex variants of his name – Vainberg is the most common – but a general consensus now has it that Weinberg is the most accurate.

Born in Warsaw in 1919, he died in Moscow in 1996 having fled to the Soviet Union in 1939, thus avoiding the fate of his parents and sister in the Holocaust, and is deemed a Soviet/Russian composer.

Few people had heard of him in the West until after his death when his music began permeating after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

He is now hailed by some as the third great Soviet composer along with Prokofiev and Shostakovich whom he met, circa 1942, and became a close friend of, to the extent that there was cross-fertilisation of ideas between the two.

He may well have prompted some, if not all of Shostakovich’s ‘Jewish’ works.

Seemingly ignored by the Soviet musical establishment, Weinberg wrote over 40 film scores as well as penning 153 works with opus numbers, including 22 symphonies, 17 string quartets and a large amount of instrumental music.

Also, seven operas, of which he regarded the first, The Passenger, written in 1967-68 but not premiered until 2006, as his most important work.

It concerns an Auschwitz survivor who after the war meets a former female warder at the notorious concentration camp on a cruise ship and a large chunk of the opera is seen in flashback.

Directed by David Pountney, it and the one Opera North is presenting formed part of a major Weinberg retrospective at the 2010 Bregenz Festival in Austria.

Pountney, who runs the festival, is directing The Portrait (directed by John Fulljames in Bregenz) for Opera North and has also provided the English translation it is sung in.

It was Weinberg’s sixth opera in 1980 and was premiered in the Moravian capital of Brno in 1983, a reduced version getting its first performance in Moscow in 1992.

It then lapsed into obscurity until the Bregenz staging last year when it is said to have been substantially cut. Apparently, it is a lengthy work.

In eight scenes, Weinberg wrote the work to a libretto by Alexander Medvedev based on a Gogol short story of the same name about a painter, Chartkov, who is torn between artistic veracity and short-cuts to wealth.

Paul Nilon sings the role in Opera North’s production and that Chartkov’s servant Nikita, the opera’s other big part, is taken by Richard Burkhard with Helen Field, Nicholas Sharratt, Steven Page and Peter Savidge among the rest of the cast.

The conductor is Rossen Gergov, a talented young Bulgarian maestro who conducted the opera in Bregenz.

A handful of further performances of Lehar’s Merry Widow make up the rest of the winter season.