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Isolation Arias: Christine Jane Chibnall

Director of Planning Christine Jane Chibnall joined Opera North from Welsh National Opera in 1983 and is one of the Company’s longest-serving members of staff.

Here is her selection of vocal rations – garnished with a few memories of notable Opera North performances – to help us through a time when live performances are impossible.

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1. Monteverdi, Vespro della Beata Vergine: Domine ad adiuvandum, Laudate pueri, Duo seraphim

By one of those extraordinary strokes of fate, I first encountered the Monteverdi Vespers when, on a family holiday in East Anglia way back in the 1970s, we stumbled through the open door of Ely Cathedral and found John Eliot Gardiner rehearsing this incredible work as shafts of evening sunlight illuminated the empty nave of what remains my favourite cathedral.

Elaborate choral settings of psalms alternate with concerti for two or three voices and often solo instruments, each a perfect little dramatic cameo.

2. Mozart, Le nozze di Figaro: Act Four Finale

Figaro will feature in many people’s Isolation Arias. Its position in the operatic repertoire as the most complex and perfect human comedy is unassailable and, for me, the piece is the biggest challenge to cast.

At the end of a long evening of complex narrative, there is a kind of steadying intake of breath when the Act Four Finale begins. However, the most extraordinary moment comes just before the Count asks his wife for forgiveness, when everything stops and the audience should be held in suspense – the silence as dramatically powerful as anything that’s been sung.


3. Verdi, Don Carlos: Act Four, Scene 1

At the age of about 12, I was obsessed with the voice of Carlo Bergonzi, and through him I got to know the recording conducted by Georg Solti. Dramaturgically flawed though it is, Don Carlos has remained my favourite Verdi opera.

There is an astonishing sequence in Act Four, starting with King Philip’s aria and ending with ‘O don fatale’. We join at the moment the unhappy Queen comes in demanding justice for the theft of her jewel case. I listened to this part of the opera so often as a child that, to this day, in any performance I mentally get up to turn over the record as Elisabeth articulates ‘ancor?’ to Eboli at the end of Side 6!

4. Berlioz, Les Nuits d’été: Le spectre de la rose

I loved this recording when it first came out in 1967 and I had no professional experience of working with singers. Now, after so many years listening to and analysing voices, I return to this recording and marvel at the extraordinary skill of Janet Baker.

Her ability to illuminate the text through vocal colours is astounding throughout this song, and at ‘J’arrive du Paradis’ she seems able, simply through colouring her voice, to bring a tangible shaft of light into the room.

5. Janáček, The Makropulos Case: Final Scene

Whichever Janáček opera we are working on at any time is always my favourite, but The Makropulos Case is particularly special for me. Sitting in stage rehearsals in the empty New Theatre Cardiff, I had the privilege of watching Elisabeth Soderstrom create her performance as Emilia Marty, the 337-year-old heroine.

Throughout the opera Emilia has searched desperately for the formula to prolong her life, but when she finally finds it, she rejects it. As life ebbs from her in the final scene, the score takes on an overwhelming emotional warmth as she finally accepts and welcomes her own mortality.

6. Shostakovich, Cheryomushki (Paradise Moscow)

This piece was a favourite with my children when we first performed it in David Pountney’s brilliant and witty production in 2001 when they were only 9, and it has remained so ever since.

The exuberant and satirical score is packed with fantastic numbers and it’s impossible to choose just one, so, slightly bending the rules, I have chosen some orchestral tracks that give the flavour of this infectiously exhilarating score – which I heartily recommend as something to dance to in the kitchen, as we still often do!

7. Britten, Gloriana: Act One, Scene 2

It is not often that at Opera North we are able to present the definitive performer in any role, but with Dame Josephine Barstow as Queen Elizabeth I in Gloriana we did.

I have loved the piece since I saw it in 1966 at Sadler’s Wells. Gloriana had probably the hardest gestation of any of our productions, but it became one of our landmark achievements. Dame Josephine quite simply was Gloriana, and however much I love the opera, I don’t think I ever want to see it performed by anyone else.

8. Sondheim, Into the Woods: No-one is Alone

In 2016, we embarked on our first major collaboration with the (then) West Yorkshire Playhouse, and whilst simultaneously putting on the Ring cycle, we despatched the Chorus to the Playhouse where James Brining directed them in a thought-provoking and magical production of Into the Woods.

The words of this song speak for themselves, and never more emotionally than in this most strange and challenging time for us all.

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