Review: The Original Chinese Conjuror and the Yellow Princess, Leeds Left Bank Opera Festival, Friday 24th August 2018

THE huge success of Northern Opera Group’s inaugural Festival, in collaboration with Left Bank Leeds exactly twelve months ago, spawned last week’s invigorating programme which honed in on western composers inspired by the music and stories of Asia. The headline operatic offering paired Raymond Yiu and Lee Warren’s The Original Chinese Conjuror with Saint-Saens’ The Yellow Princess.

Yiu and Warren’s opera was premiered at the 2006 Aldeburgh Festival. The twelve scenes pack into ninety minutes the true story of one William Robinson, apprentice to Alexander Herrmann “the greatest magician of his time”. Robinson eventually leaves Herrmann and adopts the persona of Chung Ling Soo, a mystical Chinese conjuror, who for many years fools not only his audience but the whole world. Ultimately, Soo’s famous trick of appearing to catch a bullet in his mouth fatally backfires.

Yiu’s engaging musical style and Warren’s pungent and witty libretto embrace Edwardian vaudeville and the Broadway musicals of Kurt Weill. The instrumental writing for a small ensemble including violin, clarinet, piano, double bass, percussion and accordion wonderfully conveys atmosphere and tension. The accomplished cast comprises Louis Hurst as William Robinson aka Chung Ling Soo with Rosemary Clifford as Dot Robinson, his ambitious partner and ‘Chinese’ stage assistant. Andrew Tipple is William Herrman, Alex Haigh plays news reporter Harry Elston and other characters. Counter tenor Keith Pun performs wondrous vocal gymnastics as Chai Ping who translates Chung Ling Soo’s pretend Chinese into English to fool the press and public alike.

David Ward’s taut direction and George Leigh’s arched stage designs - admirably tailored to the lofty Gothic interior of Left Bank - added to the enjoyment of this intriguing piece of music theatre, conducted with tremendous zest by Lewis Gaston.

Camille Saint-Saens’ The Yellow Princess premiered in 1872; it is a product of the composer’s fascination with the “Japanism” movement in Paris during the Second Empire. This short and dream-fuelled opera comique is oddly set - not in Paris, but in the Netherlands. The attractive young voices of Natalie Johnson-Hyde as Lena, with John Porter as Kornelius, and the subtly coloured piano accompaniment indicated that - in musical terms at least - there is much to enjoy.

by Geoffrey Mogridge