Opera North Blog

Unwrapping the Festive Box of Delights


This Saturday we’ll be taking our Christmas celebrations up a gear as the Orchestra of Opera North joins forces with Leeds Festival Chorus for the Festive Box of Delights at Leeds Town Hall. Our Tutti Cello and Library Manager, Andrew Fairley, unwraps the unique programme of traditional festive pieces and operatic gems, one by one…

“Together with our friends at Leeds Festival Chorus, we’ve designed the Festive Box of Delights as a musical smorgasbord, to be experienced as one would enjoy opening a Christmas stocking: one little treat after another that might, or might not have any connection with its neighbours - or indeed Christmas!

We begin with three excerpts from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. The opening numbers celebrate the birth of Christ and the orchestral Sinfonia is the prelude to Part Two which depicts the adoration of the shepherds.

Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony is one of those pieces that people think they don’t know until they hear it again. The third movement in particular will be familiar to many as the enchanting theme from the Christmas television adaptation of The Box of Delights, but its magical setting of The First Nowell will captivate young and old regardless.

Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ tells the story of the birth of Jesus and the escape from Bethlehem in subtle, beautiful and tender music. The oratorio began as a short organ piece called 'The Shepherds' Farewell', to which Berlioz quickly added a chorus and instrumental accompaniment and passed it off as a work by another composer. To his delight it was well-received.

Next the twinkling celeste melodies of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, synonymous with the festive season, bring to life the magical world of Russian fairy tales. For the selection box of sweet treats in the Christmas stocking, we have chosen music from later in the ballet. To start, the Waltz of the Snowflakes is one of the most catchy and fun tunes, with the spotlight on the Ladies of the Chorus. The music represents the journey to the Land of Sweets where Act 2 takes place. Then we have three small confections: The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Trepak (Russian Dance) and Danse des mirlitons. We end with the grand Pas de Deux, danced by the Prince and the Sugar Plum Fairy. Imposing and majestic, with a minor key intensity, it is the most powerful music of the ballet, and one of the best ‘cello tunes in the repertoire.

Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate was a big success for Opera North in the autumn of 2015 and will be revived next spring. 'Another Op’nin’, Another Show' is a joyous, fitting tribute to hard work and camaraderie that happens behind the scenes.

One of the trio of operatic big-hitters in Opera North's forthcoming Fatal Passions season, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly had a troubled genesis. The composer worked extremely hard to create an authentically different sound world for the tale of the abandoned Japanese wife of an American naval officer (The story was borrowed for the musical Miss Saigon) and after an initial failure hew worked on various versions before finding success. The haunting Humming Chorus was there from inception and is a poignant end to Act 2 as Butterfly begins a vigil to await the imminent arrival of her husband.

To return to our Christmas stocking analogy, 'Vilja' from Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow is a piece of Viennese sachertorte, perfectly crafted and unctuously chocolatey. Hanna Glawari, the Widow, entertains the guests at a party in the embassy in Paris with an Eastern European-flavoured tale and melody. 

Next, we return to Russia for the waltz from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, which sets the scene for Onegin’s fateful flirting with Olga at the ball.

Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana introduces a sharp Sicilian tang into the box of treats. The glorious Intermezzo comes as a moment of repose after the duets between Santuzza and the two men make it clear that all will not end well. The Easter Hymn is a great set piece that is a favourite of the chorus (my friends in the Chorus of Opera North say that it was the best sing in The Little Greats).  

To close the concert we look ahead to Bernstein’s centenary year. 'Make Our Garden Grow' is the closing number from Candide, his 1956 operetta based on Voltaire’s novella. Following their perilous adventures, Candide, Cunegonde and their retinue are reunited at a Westphalian farm to start anew." 

The Orchestra of Opera North and Leeds Festival Chorus perform a Festive Box of Delights at Leeds Town Hall on Saturday 9 December 2017.

Leeds Festival Chorus. Credit Sam Huddleston

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