Opera North’s The Snow Maiden is a reimagining of a classic Russian tale that’s been unseen (professionally) in the UK for 60 years, but does it live up to the hype? Our reviewer found out…
The Snow Maiden may be a classic, but it’s fair to say that Opera North have not taken a traditional approach. From the very start, it sets itself apart from everything that has come before, with innovative projections and a new context that takes you from the real world into a fairy tale.
The latter is so subtle you might not even notice it, and if you miss it, the factory setting might be lost on you, so look out for Aoife Miskelly at the sewing machine on the far right, because when she slips into a reverie, the fairy tale begins – this is her daydream.
The opera tells the story of The Snow Maiden, a magical creature born to Spring Beauty and Grandfather Frost. She’s a child – young, naive and desperate to go out into world, where the humans sing, dance and fall in love. There’s a catch though – she can never love herself, because her heart is made of ice, and if she feels the fire of love, it will melt.
Without The Snow Maiden, there would be no opera, and yet she doesn’t feel like the star of the show. Oh, her singing is beautiful, Miskelly hits the high notes with enviable precision, but in this production, the fairy tale princess is outshone by a human – Kupava.
There are a lot of reasons why. Part of it is the costumes. The Snow Maiden wears ripped jeans and a worker’s apron for most of the opera, while Kupava, played by Elin Pritchard, sports a colourful Russian dress and a stunning wedding gown. But that’s not really it. You see, she’s also loud, flamboyant and hilariously funny, demanding attention every time she’s on stage. Her boastful affection, vengeful heartbreak and drunken antics not only make her likeable, but familiar too – we all know someone like her, and that endears us to her.
In contrast, The Snow Maiden is awkward and uncomfortable, deliberately so, but her frozen heart keeps the audience at a distance, just as it does Lel. Speaking of which, the love interest of the piece is a cocky, strutting young lad (technically a girl, as the role is played by Heather Lowe) who has everyone swooning. He’s a typical, ‘knows he’s good looking’ teenager – fun to watch, but a real dick, and Lowe pulls it off to perfection.
The action on stage, which takes you from energetic dance numbers to haunting solos and a laugh out loud car journey that’s reminiscent of the broomstick scene in The Wizard of Oz, is framed by innovative projections that move the audience from winter to spring, helping to tell the story as they go.
All this is set to Rimsky-Korsakov’s stunning score, shortened to just under three hours from the usual four, and the cast truly did it justice. It’s sung in English, and you can understand every word, which is a rare treat in the opera.
Of all the operas I’ve seen, The Snow Maiden stands out as the best. Sure it has its quirks, but the music is supreme, the comedy first class and staging impressive. It’s probably not what you’d expect of the opera, but if you’ve never been and you fancy giving it a go, this is the perfect choice. Go on, give it a go.
The Snow Maiden runs until Friday 24th February 2017 at Leeds Grand Theatre. Tickets start at just £10 for under 30s or £15 for everyone else – and if you’re quick, you can bag some of the best seats in the house for £20, with a free glass of prosecco and 50% off your food at Manahatta.