Sarah Tynan, Cleopatra in Opera North's Julius Caesar in Egypt
Sarah Tynan, Cleopatra in Opera North's Julius Caesar in Egypt

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

City Hall

A HERCULEAN performance of Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto by Stephen Hough captured all the youthful freshness and ebullience the composer contrived to retain in his substantial 1917 revision, 25 years after it was originally penned when he was a student.

Hough played it magnificently with a sense of spontaneity evident throughout and clean articulation of the many notes in the outer movements: initially, a little nervously once or twice, although any nerves had evaporated by the time he reached the epic first movement cadenza.

The central andante was fabulously played, its objective beauty also being in evidence in a subsequent encore, Dvorák’s Songs My Mother Taught Me, which was powerfully moving in its gentleness and feeling.

Andris Nelsons was an entirely sympathetic conducting partner who, likewise, eschews ‘interpretation’ and lets the music unfold naturally without recourse to wide dynamics or speeds – a boon in the Haydn Variations by Brahms, which opened the concert.

Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra is not an easy work to bring off successfully because of its episodic nature.

Nelsons managed it, getting the nine sections to merge naturally and seamlessly as a homogenous whole, eliciting richly colourful orchestral textures from his superb orchestra along the way and, for once, the second section didn’t sound like an anticlimactic start to the rest of the work after the well-known, shattering opening.

Bernard Lee

Julius Caesar in Egypt

Grand Theatre Leeds

THEY came; they sang; they conquered! Opera North are on top form in this sparkling new production of Handel’s account of the Roman emperor’s military and sexual conquests in Egypt.

But – as ever – it is Cleopatra who steals the show. She is vivaciously sung and acted here by Sarah Tynan, who pulls off the not-inconsiderable vocal demands of the role with ease while maintaining a fine balance between seductiveness and vulnerability.

She is backed by an excellent cast made up largely of women playing men, and counter-tenors (castrati being in short supply in Yorkshire these days).

The most impressive of them is James Laing as her dastardly brother Tolomeo, who endures a final, on-stage indignity for which most opera singers would demand a stunt double.

Leslie Travers’ set metamorphoses beautifully from forbidding pyramid/fortress to sumptuous palace, and watching Cleopatra paddling through a shimmering, candle-lit pool is a moment of pure joy.

Opera North make a long-overdue return to Sheffield Lyceum in May with another stand-out show – Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore – and this latest success is a great reminder of what we’ve been missing.

Philip Andrews