I’ve always treated sleeping pills with a heavy dose of suspicion. Anything that I might come to rely upon should be avoided, and, in the end, does one ever feel genuinely refreshed after a night of drug induced torpor? I wouldn’t know, but I’m seriously considering it as an option, such is the power of Weinberg’s The Portrait to invade every corner of my brain. There isn’t a waking moment that snippets of this bewitching score fail to raid my consciousness. And the nights…Oh! The nights! The nerves before a premiere are challenging enough to contend with, let alone being forced to lie wide awake at 4am with themes and motifs bouncing around one’s cranium. Maybe,…and here’s a thought..maybe Weinberg’s score  is bewitched, haunted! Maybe all those who perform it are destined, rather like Paul Nilon’s character Chartkov, to become possessed, tortured and finally subsumed into its very pages. Mmmmm…not sure about that. What I do know, however, is that shuffling up the Headrow towards the Grand Theatre, as I was on Wednesday evening, the prospect of  performing the role of Nikita in the UK premiere of The Portrait in a state of such utter fatigue was, well, worrying!…And then….there it was- like a beacon of light on the horizon, an orange glow of hope. SAINSBURYS. A can of Lucozade, a Milky Bar and a couple of seriously under-ripe bananas later, and I was feeling fine. Up for the fight!

And what a first night it was. The excitement before curtain up was palpable, (or was it the sugar coursing through my veins?) You can tell if a show has been well rehearsed by the ambience backstage before curtain up. An atmosphere of calm concentration pervades, everyone going about their duties with diligence and purpose, with a common goal in mind. It always amazes me quite how many people are involved in mounting an operatic performance. Far from being pivotal, us singers are but little cogs in a huge well-oiled (one hopes!) machine. A production behind the production if you like, with its own choreography, its own synthesis of elements; checking props, moving the set, focussing lights, checking costumes, applying make-up, and much, much more. It’s truly a marvel.

Judging by the audience‘s reaction, the evening was a success. Paul Nilon gave a towering performance as Chartkov and has deserved his terrific reviews. The audience laughed at the right places, were gripped when they needed to be, and I hope, left with Dan Potra’s stunning set and costumes emblazoned in their memories. My own enduring memory of the evening will be the beam on David Pountney’s face when he took his curtain call. He has been the engine behind this piece of work and deserves credit for opening our eyes and ears to Weinberg.

Lordy, Merry Widow this evening; but I’ve been in absurdist Russia for the last 4 weeks! Will I….can I possibly remember the high-kicking choreography of the Septet? Forward on the right leg….forward on the right leg! Bye for now.

Richard Burkhard

Last chance to see The Portrait in Leeds on Thursday 10 & 12 Feb, then touring to Newcastle Theatre Royal, Theatre Royal Nottingham and The Lowry, Salford Quays.

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