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Opera North Opens Season With a Sparkling ‘My Fair Lady’

My Fair Lady , the Lerner and Loewe musical based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play Pygmalion , is one of those perfect works with which it’s impossible to find fault. And you might think that having led with that sentence that a “but” was on its way. But there is no but.

Opera North’s staging of My Fair Lady at the Lebanon Opera House , which opened on Saturday, is as joyous and exuberant an entertainment as you could wish, and it’s also graced with two star performances from Emily Brockway as the Cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle and Mark Womack as phonetics professor Henry Higgins, who boasts that he can turn Eliza Doolittle from a bedraggled guttersnipe into a duchess in six months.

Shaw was attacking the sclerotic British class system, in which merely dropping the “h” from the beginning of a word was enough to categorize and condemn a person to a lifetime of servitude.

True, My Fair Lady ’s ending, in which Doolittle, having achieved under Higgins’ acerbic, tone-deaf tutelage her stated wish to become a “lady,” finally rejects his treatment of her, but then returns to him, feels somewhat unsatisfactory.

Lerner and Loewe had to wrestle with Shaw’s original ending, in which Eliza Doolittle informs Higgins that she’s had enough of his willful cruelty and leaves him, rather like Nora Helmer’s slam of the door at the end of Ibsen’s The Dollhouse . Shaw, after all, identified himself as a feminist. He strongly resisted any attempts to romanticize the ending, insisting that once she’d liberated herself from Higgins’ tyrannnical methods and personality Eliza would not willingly submit again to him. Indeed, according to Shaw’s logic, the play couldn’t end any other way.

The most Shaw would concede, in an afterword he wrote to explain why he had not softened the ending despite pleas from the producer and director to do so, is that Eliza Doolittle, while attracted to Higgins as a man and an intellectual influence, would instead marry her suitor, the fatuous Freddy Eynsford-Hill. The reason: Freddy would bring Eliza her slippers, rather than she fetching slippers for him, as she’d had to do for Higgins.

Wrote Shaw: “But when it comes to business, to the life that she really leads as distinguished from the life of dreams and fancies, she likes Freddy and she likes the Colonel; and she does not like Higgins and Mr. Doolittle. Galatea never does quite like Pygmalion: his relation to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable.”

But a romantic comedy isn’t supposed to end on a note of ambiguity. So while Lerner and Loewe were extremely faithful to the original play, using much of the original dialogue, they altered it so that although Eliza Doolittle walked out on Higgins, having delivered him a metaphoric kick in the pants, she then walked back in again. This wasn’t inconsistent with Shaw’s observation that “Eliza’s instinct tells her not to marry Higgins. It does not tell her to give him up.”

And they gave Higgins the musing, tender song-soliliquy I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face , in which he realizes that his attachment to Eliza is more than just the relationship of tutor to student. In short, Lerner and Loewe gave him a soul.

Mark Womack, who sang Mercutio in an Opera North production of Charles Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet and who also performed Marcello on Broadway in Australian director Baz Luhrmann’s take on La Boheme , plays Higgins, interestingly, as an idealist and something of a romantic, one who conceals his feelings under an icy cloak of scientific detachment. In the last half hour of the musical, when Higgins reacts furiously to Eliza’s criticisms of him, Womack summons wounded emotions, not just an outraged ego. He’s an exceptionally good actor, and has a warm, steady baritone.

Emily Brockway, as Eliza, is entrancing as both the woebegone seller of flowers outside Covent Garden, who seizes her chance to rise in life by changing how she sounds, and the elegant, assured woman with flawless enunciation, who goes to an embassy ball, a nd enchants all she meets. She has a bright, vivid soprano, and a charismatic stage and vocal presence, able to navigate the wistful strains of Wouldn’t it Be Loverly and the colder fury of Just You Wait and Without You with ease. Both Brockway and Womack are evenly matched in their roles, which is essential if one is to believe the entire premise.

In non-singing parts, Christopher Flockton is a warm-hearted, slightly befuddled Col. Pickering, and Dorothy Stanley is an appropriately tart Mrs. Higgins, who as Henry’s mother is long accustomed to his pedantic philosophizing. Branch Fields, although he seems perhaps a shade young for the part of Eliza’s father Alfred P. Doolittle, professional rascal and deadbeat dad, has a resonant bass voice and a feel for Doolittle as a comical character.

This is the first year that the stage has been miked for sound, a development that isn’t all good. It does help augment the voices of some of the Young Artists, not all of whom have yet learned how to project their voices outward beyond the orchestra. But it also sounds slightly tinny in spots.

On one hand, if it helps the audience hear better, why not? They’ve paid a fair amount of money to hear every word clearly. On the other hand, it’s a performer’s job to project amply enough so that he or she doesn’t need to be miked — and it’s also the responsibility of the musical and stage directors to help him or her do that.

Miking, intended to disperse sound, often seems to have the opposite effect of limiting a singer’s voice because it picks up discrete sounds in discrete spots, rather than giving a voice the expansiveness and suppleness it should have. Some of the performers on stage had no difficulty making a big sound, others were shakier; it should be consistent.

And in some scenes the tempo set by conductor Louis Burkot hurried ahead of the singers, so that they had to catch up to where he was in the score, and in some instances they seemed a little late coming on stage for their cues. This can be easily adjusted . Veteran stage director Catherine Doherty, who previously directed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I for Opera North, keeps the performers from teetering too far over into Cockney “‘Ullo, Guvnhah” parody, or pinkie-extended, upper crust mannerisms.

My Fair Lady will continue on Aug . 8, 16 and 19 at 7:30 p.m. There will be a matinee on Aug. 13 at 2 p.m. For information and tickets go to operanorth.org or call the Lebanon Opera House at 603-448-0400.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.