April 2011


CapriccioRichard Strauss - Capriccio

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Andrew Davis, John Cox, Renée Fleming, Sarah Connolly, Joseph Kaiser, Russell Braun, Morten Frank Larsen, Peter Rose | The Met: Live in HD - April 23, 2011

In a short pre-performance interview before the Live in HD performance of Strauss’ final opera Capriccio, Renée Fleming spoke about the role of the Countess in the opera and, with no false modesty – although she would of course be the star of the piece – said that she considered the opera a true ensemble piece. This is true in more than one sense, for while there are equal roles for the other performers in Capriccio, the Countess no more prominent than any of them, opera itself is, by definition, an ensemble piece, and as an opera about opera, Capriccio really ought to be nothing else.

In that respect at least, Capriccio is a masterfully constructed opera, but you would expect nothing less from Richard Strauss, whose approach to opera I personally find sometimes a little more frustratingly intellectualised than truly emotional or from the heart. Even at his most emotionally intense, in the deep discordant personal trauma of Elektra, every single emotion seems to be dissected and analysed, every note perfectly attuned to the resonance of the mental state of its characters, leaving little room for interpretation or genuine feeling to come through. Strauss’ other most famous operas co-written with librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos, similarly demonstrate the composer’s ability to portray more than feel character behaviour, each of those operas self-reflexively really saying more about opera and the role of characters in an opera than anything meaningful about life and reality. Well, almost. What redeems all those operas are the little moments of heartfelt truths that are reached and expressed, principally, though the music itself.

One would not expect there to be a great deal of the warmth of life to be found in Capriccio, since the opera is indeed another of Richard Strauss’ intellectual exercises, the entire opera nothing more than a drawing room conversation between rich artists and intellectuals in an elegant Parisian chateau who talk endlessly about one subject; which is more important – words or music? The question comes up between the composer Flamand and the poet Olivier, two guests at the birthday party of a widowed Countess Madeleine at her chateau. Each hoping to win the favour of the Countess, they seek to impress her with their arguments and force her to choose between them, but Madeleine is not swayed, recognising the beauty in both, particularly when they are brought together, each enhancing the other. The theatre director La Roche says that neither of them would have any value were it not for the director to interpret and stage the works, which leads the conversation onto the value of opera, and eventually the Count, the brother of Madeleine, suggests that they should all work together on an opera, the subject of which should be the events of that very evening and the conversation they have all had together.

Capriccio

That sounds like a fairly fruitless exercise on the part of Strauss, writing an opera that is about writing an opera about writing an opera – to say nothing about it having a distinct air of triviality for the time it was written, in Germany in 1942 during the Third Reich – but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the qualities of Capriccio are, well, in the opera itself. As Renée Fleming noted, it’s an ensemble piece, and since each of the main characters are practically personifications of Music, Poetry and Drama, it’s the ensemble that is important in a work of opera. The role of the Countess may not seem to be as important as those other elements in the scheme of the composing of an opera – even Monsieur Taupe, the prompter has an important role to play – but she has perhaps the most vital role of all. What that role is isn’t exactly defined and it’s left for the listener to determine what that magic element is, but she could be, in hard-edged practical terms, the financer, or, more mystically, she is in some ways the inspiration, or even the harmony that brings them both together. She is also the audience, on whose reception, personal interpretation and personal identification the success of the drawing together of the various elements counts most. It’s not by chance then that the ending of the opera (and on a notionally dramatic level, her choice of the two suitors), which is left for the Countess to decide, is left open. The ultimate meaning and value of an opera lies with the listener.

It’s appropriate then that the weight of the argument is perfectly balanced on all sides, and this is where the brilliance of Capriccio lies. It opens with a string sextet – the music that is being played for the Countess – and it even stops the music to allow words to be spoken. Each of the characters then has their role, their chance to impress, expressed through the voice and in the words of the singers. Strauss even introduces an actor, Italian opera singers and a ballet sequence – all vital components that may go into an opera, particularly in the ideal of opera (considered to be Gluck here, as elsewhere), and each of them individually show their worth in Strauss’ beautiful flowing compositions. The Met’s production, a single act opera in a period room, itself demonstrates the value of staging, and it’s perfect. But in order for the opera to be more than the sum of its parts, it needs more than just the ensemble bringing them all together. It needs the Countess. It needs the magic. It needs that receptive audience. To be specific, it needs Renée Fleming. And this is the genius of Strauss’ work in Capriccio, in that he knows that the opera work is not complete, is never static – it’s alive. It’s as if Strauss had composed the opera for Renée Fleming, for a singer who in those final moments can bring something unique and special to that vital closing aria where she reaches out to the audience and communicates something ineffable, meaningful and personal. It’s a blissful moment that opens up everything that opera is and should be about.

PelleasClaude Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

Opernhaus Zürich, 2004 | Franz Welser-Möst, Sven-Eric Bechtoff, Rodney Gilfry, Isabel Rey, Michael Volle, Lázló Polgár, Cornelia Kallisch, Eva Liebau, Guido Götzen | TDK

Debussy’s only full-length opera, composed in 1902, could be considered somewhat difficult, and indeed part of the reason for its difficulty could lie in the composer consciously striving not to imitate Wagner. If the Wagner influence is still evident in Pelléas et Mélisande however, Debussy takes the idea of music-drama a little bit further, making it difficult to find conventional melodies, leitmotifs or even a clearly definable plot, the almost mythological storyline flowing rather to its own pace, rhythm and purpose. In reality, it’s not a difficult opera at all, unless you bring such expectations to it, but rather, left to work to its own unique operatic language, allowing yourself to go with the flow, it’s actually easy to become caught up in the strange world that Debussy creates.

The strange nature of the opera and the musical arrangement that it consequently adopts undoubtedly have more to do with the nature of the source work for the opera, a symbolist play by Maurice Maeterlinck that relates less to the conventions of narrative cause-and-effect drama, but more to the internal states of the characters being made manifest in the world around them through objects, environments, landscapes. Their behaviours are therefore less easily defined, unconstrained as they are by conventional means of expression and communication. Musically, this is also how Debussy’s score operates. Trying to associate the music with the singers through the traditional form of expression then can be problematic and not lead to expected rational conclusions. Much better to let those elements just seep in, create their own resonances that are less literal and more impressionistic and suggestive.

As such Pelléas et Mélisande is not an opera that needs to be tied to any specific period – unless a director wants to make a specific statement – and to tie it to a particular time or place is likely to create social/environmental meanings that may be contrary to the intention of the piece. This means that the opera can either be set in that vague non-time-specific no-man’s land that opera does so well, or, rather more controversially, it is open to rather more extreme interpretations. The staging here by Sven-Eric Bechtoff for the Opernhaus Zürich in 2004 consequently can be seen as being either wilfully bizarre or just perfectly suited to the unusual nature of the opera. In outline, the story is not that complicated. Lost in a forest while hunting a boar, Prince Goland discovers a young woman, Mélisande, weeping by the side of a lake. He doesn’t know who she is, although there is a crown at the bottom of the lake, but rescues her and they are married. Mélisande however forms a closer attachment to Goland’s brother Pelléas, a relationship that, inevitably, is to have tragic consequences.

There is however more going on between the characters than is evident on the surface, each of them having hidden natures, each of them unable to fully relate to or communicate with one another. As a means of bringing this out, Bechtoff places the characters in some kind of winter fairy-tale kingdom to emphasise the nature of their isolation, while he employs full-size look-alike dummies for each of the characters to act as doubles for them, the characters more often speaking to the dummy counterparts and pushing them around in wheelchairs than relating to the actual people. It all seems rather obvious and it’s tempting to see the device as just an expression of how people are puppets being used by others for their own purposes, but that is also too obvious and, in a symbolist work where there is just as much emphasis on objects – hair, rings, towers – it’s appropriate that the characters are objects themselves (the split into halves indeed being the original definition of symbolism). In this light, and on a non-rational basis, what appears to be a bizarre conceit proves to be uncannily effective, and when the characters do communicate directly with each other – as opposed to interacting with dummies – it does force you to take more notice of what is being said.

How much you will buy into this depends largely on your tolerance for high-concept modern stagings and how much credence you give to the symbolist movement, since other than perhaps in the film work of Antonioni and his disciples, their style doesn’t have a great deal of relevance or influence and is not held in great regard nowadays, certainly not from a literary viewpoint. It’s important to note however that the staging is not a distortion of the intentions of the opera on the part of the producers, but rather, if it doesn’t adhere to the letter of the work, it is nonetheless perfectly in keeping with the spirit of it, and certainly matches the spirit of Debussy’s musical composition. Making use of a revolving stage, the production is certainly effective in its dreamy fluidity, but it’s also exceptionally well sung, particularly by Rodney Gilfry as Pélleas, but Isabel Rey as Mélisande, Michael Volle as Goland and László Polgár as King Arkel are all marvellous. The orchestra playing is superb, particularly in the excellent High Definition sound reproduction on the Blu-ray.

TraviataRichard Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer

De Nederlandse Opera, 2010 | Hartmut Haenchen, Martin Kušej, Robert Lloyd, Catherine Naglestad, Marco Jentzsch, Marina Prudenskaja, Oliver Ringelhahn, Juha Uusitalo | Opus Arte

If you like your Wagner staged in the traditional manner, then this production won’t be for you. If however you think that the themes in Wagner’s work – fatalistic romantic destinies, love, duty, power, suffering, the conflict between tradition and modernity – have a timeless quality and can resonate with its subject no matter what the setting, then you might be inclined to at least understand why a producer might want to relate those themes in a way that is relevant to a modern audience. The question with the De Nederlandse Opera production of Der fliegende Holländer however is whether they take it too far and perhaps take too many liberties with the opera.

Der fliegende Holländer however, is not a late Wagner work, the composition not conforming precisely to the musical standards that the composer would later set, nor indeed in the very specific manner in which it should be presented. Written around the same time as Rienzi, Der fliegende Holländer certainly points towards that direction and is a fascinating opera to examine the beginning of Wagner’s progression, but it is still curiously imbalanced between the newer style and the influences of old, more conventional Italianate opera practices, and the switch between them can be quite jarring in parts of the opera. Since we can’t go back however and consider the opera and its relevance afresh through the eyes of a 19th century audience – and since even Wagner used mythology to speak to a contemporary audience of modern ideas for a Germanic art and principles – we have no choice but to consider the opera from a modern perspective in any case.

Director Martin Kušej takes advantage of the somewhat schizophrenic split in the opera itself between tradition and modernity in order to present it meaningfully to a modern-day Dutch audience.  There are no longer sailing ships sailing the seven seas for years at a time - ship navigation, seafaring and commerce are all very different now, so if you think about it in modern terms, it shouldn’t really be surprising to see shipping in terms of cruises and ferries, the Dutchman here arriving on a Norwegian ferry, his crew asylum seekers, looking for a homeland, a place to settle after a lifetime of being tossed around as refugees on the seas of conflict and revolution.  It shouldn’t be difficult either to consider the arrival of these figures being perceived as a threat to those who enjoy a comfortable western bourgeois lifestyle.

Whether those multicultural subjects have any place in a Wagner opera is for the opera lover to consider (or not, should such interpretations not hold any interest for traditionalists), but it strikes me as a valid response to the themes of Der fliegende Holländer, and – most importantly – it’s presented here in a manner that doesn’t undermine or lessen the importance of the other eternal themes in the opera and the subjects that held meaning for Richard Wagner, namely the loss of one’s homeland, a consideration of what is a sense of homeland, and all the associated themes that go alongside it where love, family, stability and security count for more than richness and social climbing in a globalised society where money talks. Those subjects are treated with utmost reverence in this production, and the reason why they can be given a modern spin is because the opera is so powerful in its expression of them, tying them deeply into a mythology that does indeed hold mystique and attraction in the legend of the Flying Dutchman, but also in the use of the sea itself – a powerful symbol in any guise, but even more so here in the musical expression and embryonic use of leitmotif that Wagner employs so evocatively.

While I feel that the opera’s themes are done justice to in this production then – but I can quite understand why it might not work for everyone – what is just as important, and ultimately persuasive here is the performance of the opera itself. Quite simply, it is sung and played magnificently, and comes across particularly well in the stunning sound reproduction that is presented on the Blu-ray edition. Not only are the voices of Juha Uusitalo and Catherine Naglestad superb in their range, control and power, but they blend together most marvellously as a singers and as the couple of the Dutchman and Senta. This is totally a 5-star production in terms of performance and singing alone (as well as for the quality of the Blu-ray) – but it is also a sincere, interesting and fascinating attempt to relate the opera to modern themes. If the concept is perhaps a slightly imperfect fit, or slightly inconsistent with the original intentions of the opera, Der fliegende Holländer was always an imperfect opera in the first place – but, like this production, no less fascinating for those perceived flaws and inconsistencies.

TraviataGiuseppe Verdi - La Traviata

The Royal Opera - Covent Garden, 2010 | Antonio Pappano, Richard Eyre, Renée Fleming, Joseph Calleja, Thomas Hampson, Monika-Evelin Liiv, Sarah Pring, Haoyin Xue, Eddie Wade | Opus Arte

Renée Fleming has matured into one of the finest sopranos around at the moment, a true star with a sparkling personality and a velvet-toned voice that is capable of wringing the finest emotions out of works by Strauss and Tchaikovsky that from a lesser singer could sound rather cold and clinical. I wouldn’t have thought her voice would be so well suited to Violetta Valéry in La Traviata, and it does take some getting used to, but I think she at least brings a distinct quality to the role with an emotional heart that isn’t always necessarily there when a leading diva uses it primarily as a display for her vocal talents. It’s served well also by Antonio Pappano’s conducting of the Royal Opera House Orchestra in a traditional but effective production by Richard Eyre.

There’s only one way to really measure the true performance of La Traviata however, and that is by the qualities of the soprano. Renée Fleming does seem a little faltering in the first act, the warm enveloping richness of her tone perhaps not quite bringing out the clarity of the Italian diction. The production also seems a little disjointed in Act 1, setting up the great arias well (and is there any opera that has quite so many memorable, technically and dramatically impressive arias?), but not really sure what to do with the performers in between. Fleming’s ‘È strano …ah forsè’lui‘ however is excellent, the soprano most definitely singing it her own way, putting a different complexion and personal interpretation on the opera.

If Act I doesn’t flow as well as one might hope, Act II however is superb in every respect – singing, dramatic representation, the precision and timing of the orchestration all played to perfection in both scenes. Fleming’s duet with Hampson’s Germont Sr., ‘Ah! Dite alla giovine‘, is technically stunning, but at the same time full of heartfelt emotion. I’ve rarely seen it done so well and it’s capable of leaving you dead in your tracks. Much as I sometimes find Act III a little gruelling in this opera, here it also comes across with great emotional force, again primarily down to Fleming’s superb acting talent, but also to how well she blends with Joseph Calleja. Calleja is a tenor very much in the classic mould of a Pavarotti or Domingo, and as such is perfectly suited to a role such as Alfredo. There is some maturing to be done in his voice, and he certainly doesn’t have the personality or range of the greats, but his voice has a beautiful tone and blends well with Fleming here.

It’s hard then to find fault with the production or the performances, but there are so many versions of La Traviata out there that a new version really needs something special to entice you into reconsidering it anew (such as in the fascinating Willy Decker production with Anna Netrebko). This is a straightforward, traditional, period staging – it doesn’t add anything new, it doesn’t make the viewer reconsider the whole tone of the piece or allow them to plunge into its emotional heart – but it has Renée Fleming, and it’s worthwhile for that alone. Other than for Fleming however, one can’t help but feel that this would indeed be just another La Traviata.

The quality of the Blu-ray release is good, but not great. The lighting is rather soft, so it doesn’t have the clarity you might expect, but it does seem to capture a sense of the ambience of Covent Garden. The audio likewise doesn’t really have a full depth of tone. The violins dominate, but feel slightly detached from the rest of the orchestration in the 5.1 mix, only occasionally achieving the thunderous tone that is often demanded. The PCM stereo mix however is excellent and may be the better option. The extras on the disc consists of a worthwhile 21-minute interview of Fleming by Pappano, where the soprano acknowledges the personal challenges the role represents, and describes her technical approach.

ComteOryGioachino Rossini - Le Comte Ory

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Juan Diego Flórez, Michele Pertusi, Joyce DiDonato, Stéphane Degout, Diana Damrau, Susanne Resmark, Monica Yunus | The Met: Live in HD - April 9, 2011

The big selling point of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s 2010/11 season has of course been the start of their new Ring cycle, the season opening with a technically impressive set and some wonderful singing for Wagner’s Das Rheingold, and it is due to end the season and prove the worth of its Ring cycle with the second instalment of the tetralogy Die Walküre later in the month. In between however, while there have been many highlights among the varied productions broadcast around the world live in HD, it’s undoubtedly been the bel canto operas that have stood out like sparkling little gems amidst the rather more solid fare of Boris Godunov, Don Carlo and Iphigénie en Tauride during the Met’s current season.

Donizetti’s Don Pasquale and Lucia de Lammermoor where however revivals of successful Met productions, with Anna Netrebko and Nathalie Dessay slipping almost effortlessly into roles that they can be relied upon to perform exceptionally well, but the challenges of producing Le Comte Ory by Rossini, the father of bel canto, are rather different. One of the final operas composed by Rossini in France, a year before he prematurely retired from opera writing in 1829, Le Comte Ory features some of the composer’s most challenging singing roles in a rather more sophisticated composition that would draw on arrangements from some of his earlier Italian operas. Less well-known than the more famous Rossini works, it’s not so much then that Le Comte Ory is a lesser work by any means, but rather that it’s only recently that singers of sufficient ability have been trained to tackle the formidable challenges that Le Comte Ory – and indeed many other bel canto operas that are currently undergoing revival – present.

We’re talking evidently of Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez, one of a very few tenors who can consistently hit and hold the High Cs and Ds littered throughout the minefields of operas like La Fille du Regiment and Le Comte Ory to catch out and expose tenors who are rather less nimble and lacking in the kind of stamina they demand. Receiving its first performance ever at the Met for these reasons, it is indeed difficult to imagine anyone else but Juan Diego Flórez being able to carry off the role of the Count off with any conviction. It’s not however just a matter of being able to find a lead tenor who can meets the demands of the opera, Le Comte Ory also presents challenging roles for soprano and mezzo-soprano, and with Diana Damrau and Joyce DiDonato being drafted in to form a remarkable trio, the Met can justifiably make excuses for waiting so long to be able to assemble a worthy cast for Rossini’s late masterpiece.

ComteOry

Even after these successful performances, whether the opera is a masterpiece or not is however still open to question. The plot of the comic opera, based on a one-act 1816 vaudeville written by Eugène Scribe and Charles-Gaspard Delestre-Poirson – who also produced the libretto for the opera – is not the most sophisticated. The story is little more than a Carry-on affair revolving around the activities of a notorious libertine who dons disguises in order to seduce as many of the women of the land as possible while their husbands are away fighting in the Crusades. In Act 1, wearing a long black flowing beard, he passes himself off as a wise hermit who dispenses advice to the women folk in exchange for offerings and one-on-one “consultations”. His ultimate aim is to bed the beautiful Countess Adèle, sister of the Count of Formoutiers, but he has a rival in the form of his own page, Isolier. His disguise rumbled by his own tutor, Ory regroups his forces and plans another assault on the women of the castle by disguising himself and his big bearded men as nuns on a pilgrimage.

The fact that Le Comte Ory is a comedy is in itself no reason why the opera can’t be great and reveal deeper truths about men, women, love and lust – Mozart’s operas with Da Ponte stand as testament to the deeper human urges and the tragic impulses that lie beneath them, expressed both through the music and the subtleties of the libretto. Le Comte Ory isn’t on the same level musically or in the libretto, but it is certainly a little more musically sophisticated than most other bel canto operas, and if the libretto doesn’t reveal any great truths or insights, the quality of the singing does at least raise it to another level. Flórez, unsurprisingly, is dazzling as the Count – even despite being up all the night previous to this performance and taking to the stage only a half hour after assisting his wife give birth – playing with verve and perfect comic timing, making it all look effortless yet consistently hitting all the high notes with not so much as a flutter or waver in tone. Diana Damrau was even more impressive as Adèle – her singing role equally if not even more challenging than that of the Count – adding colouratura and displaying impeccable legato in a performance that was not only technically flawless, but accompanied by fine, entertaining comic acting.

Despite having wonderfully written singing roles to demonstrate the exceptional singing ability and technique, the real test of the opera and its true brilliance is found however in the interaction of the singers, and in this respect, Flórez, Damrau and DiDonato formed a delightful team that fully justified the Met’s efforts to bring them together in this way. In this particular opera that close interaction is tested to its limit in a three-in-a-bed ménage-a-trois romp in Act II that not only lived up to the sauciness that was promised in the advance publicity for the opera – the scene exploiting the fact that DiDonato was in a trouser-role – but was as expertly orchestrated and choreographed as anything out of The Marriage of Figaro’s most complex mistaken identity denouements, with five to ten minutes of the most dazzlingly brilliant singing and entertainment delivered between the trio in the most tricky of acting situations. Simply stunning.

ComteOry

The stars all made their big impression then, but elsewhere they were well supported by a fine all-round production. Even though he explained the rationale behind the reduced scale of the production during his between act interview on the HD broadcast, I’m still not entirely clear why Bartlett Sher chose to stage the opera as a period opera staging-within-a-staging. It certainly put a little necessary comic distance between the theatricality of the old-style farce drama, but was also effective in allowing the performance to flow without long scene-change interruptions, which was ultimately to the benefit of the piece. The conducting of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the Chorus by Maurizio Benini similarly played to the strengths of the opera’s fast-paced rhythms, and there was fine singing and performances also by Susanne Resmark as Dame Ragonde, the castle stewardess, and Michele Pertusi as the tutor.

ToscaGiacomo Puccini - Tosca

NI Opera, 2011 | Nicholas Chalmers, Oliver Mears, Lee Bisset, Jesús León, Paul Carey Jones, Brendan Collins, John Molloy, Andrew Rees | Derry-Londonderry, 1st April 2011

Playing for only three performances in Derry rather than what would seem to be the more natural venue of the Grand Opera House in Belfast, a production of Puccini’s Tosca would seem to be a relatively low-key event and a fairly conventional popular opera for the inaugural production of the newly-formed Northern Ireland Opera. The choices made in the location and the opera itself however proved to be far from just going for a safe choice, the timing of the event coinciding with a security alert on the day that I attended adding a further unpredictable element to the proceedings that made it an occasion that was in reality something rather special.

Some of the most remarkable elements were however indeed through the choice of NI Opera to stage the production of Tosca not in the usual expected venue. Even leaving Belfast aside, the newly built Millennium Forum would have seemed to be the venue of choice for the production’s Derry opening, but instead the company chose to stage each of the three acts of Tosca in three different locations in the city – all within short walking distance of each other, each of them approximating the Rome locations specified in the libretto. The choice of locations proved to be inspired – St Columb’s Cathedral standing in for Act 1’s Sant’ Andrea della Valle church, the fine surroundings of the City Hall The Guildhall turned into the Farnese Palace for Act 2, with the slightly more conventional theatre choice of St Columb’s Hall used for Act 3’s Castel Sant’ Angelo nonetheless having an appropriate position perched on the ancient walls of the city, where the audience were led between acts, following the orchestra carrying their instruments, for the opera’s dramatic finale.

In the event, for the matinee performance on the Friday 1st April 2011, it turned out that Act 1 had to be hastily moved from the Cathedral to the Guildhall due to a security alert that saw the bomb squad arrive with sirens blaring through the narrow streets leading up to the Diamond to deal with a suspect device left in the area of St Columb’s.  The improvised rearrangement of one of the chambers of the Guildhall to represent a church in the first Act was however effectively achieved, and even if they had to make do with a plastic bucket for a font, the natural light through the beautiful stained-glass windows helped create the right kind of environment for the unfolding of Act 1’s religious and political themes. It didn’t need an unexpected bomb alert elsewhere in the city either for the audience to connect with the relevance of the themes in Tosca to the population of Derry-stroke-Londonderry (the hyphenated split in the City’s commonly referred to designation reflecting the strong nationalist/unionist divide in the region). Apart from some non-specific modern dress elements and the visceral blood-stained white tiles of an all too familiar-looking clinical police interrogation room in Act 3, the opera wasn’t updated to make a specific link to the political and religious troubles in Northern Ireland. It would have been contentious - not to say a problematic distortion of reality - to draw a direct parallel between a rebel prisoner on the run being hunted down by brutal security forces under the control of a religious bigot and make it work, but the character types, the attitudes and the actions expressed were still those that a local audience of all ages could certainly have identified with, even if those elements were only able to be hinted at, and even if the connection wasn’t consciously made in the minds of the audience.

This then was the strength of NI Opera’s Tosca – and I’m sure that the relevance of the content of the opera didn’t go unnoticed when it and the location were chosen by the company – but it’s a characteristic of Puccini’s opera and a quality of opera in general that if its themes and their treatment have an authentic ring of truth then an audience cannot help but strongly identify with them. And it’s not just the political and religious content of the storyline – which is somewhat heightened by the compressed structure of the opera – but more importantly the underlying human element of ordinary people trying to conduct ordinary lives while caught up in a political nightmare. I find it hard to relate the romanticism in Puccini’s work elsewhere to the versimo movement that he was nominally a part of, but Tosca is one opera at least that plays to the school of hard-knocks and brutal realism. That aspect was thoroughly and bloodily explored in the wonderful staging, judging by the reaction of the public to each of the acts, but in particular to the hugely dramatic conclusion where the audience were on their feet and roaring their approval even before the curtain fell and while Nicholas Chalmers was still wringing out the opera’s final powerful closing chords from the orchestra.

The Guildhall and St Columb’s Hall locations were certainly instrumental in achieving this effect, bringing the audience close to the performance and allowing them to relate to it in a way one could never get from any opera house in the world – making the richness of the orchestration and the singing even more apparent. We were fortunate in this respect to have Lee Bisset (for the Friday matinee performance only – I didn’t get the chance to hear the main Tosca Giselle Allen who sang the two evening performances) as leading soprano for the occasion, delivering a commanding and sometimes dramatically strident Tosca when viewed close-up like this, but whose powerful voice nonetheless carried all the emotional cry-to-whisper dynamic of a character whose range encompasses lightning switches between jealousy over the model for Cavaradossi’s painting, to love and compassion for the torture he endures while incarcerated, right through to murderous vengeance on the man who would abuse her. Bisset not only made the full force of those verismo emotions felt, she made them credible.

Any attempt to give subtlety or complexity to the character of Baron Scarpia as Chief of Police would have been out of place here, and Paul Carey Jones accordingly played him as a villain through and through, at the same time relating the singing fully to the tone of his character as it is outlined in Puccini’s brooding and evocative score, most evident in the self-important arrogance of political power conflated with religious authority conveyed in the Te Deum. In the location of the Derry/Londonderry Guildhall (standing in for the closed-off Cathedral of course), this Act 1 conclusion needed no additional overemphasis. The only weak element of the singing I felt was Mexican tenor Jesús León as Cavaradossi, whose accented delivery was rather thin and unmusical, closer to speaking his role than singing it or fully feeling it – though I’m sure singing it in English didn’t help. Perhaps however the Guildhall surroundings and the comparatively more powerful singing of his fellow-cast members in the earlier Acts also rather overshadowed his voice (as does my memory of Plácido Domingo in the role). This would seem to be borne out by a much more convincing performance on an actual stage and with the acoustics of St Columb’s Hall behind him, since his E lucevan le stelle there was excellent at conveying the range of emotions his character is going through at such a pivotal moment in his life.

In the short period of their existence since their formation at the end of 2010, Northern Ireland Opera have nonetheless provided me personally with a number of unique opera experiences. Their chamber orchestra production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium at the Mill Theatre in Newtownabbey (another uncommon place for an opera production) introduced the province – or at least a small local audience – to an unfamiliar work from a modern composer in a wonderfully intimate environment. Tosca in Derry was even more ambitious in doing something different from the norm, clearly reaching out to bring opera into the provinces and expand the audience (with an affordable highest ticket price at only £15 – another welcome experience) through making the staging a unique and special event that cannot be replicated anywhere else. (Tosca has of course been staged for film and television in its original Rome locations, but it takes on another dimension when performed this way in Northern Ireland). It was a pity that the very location should prove problematic on this one occasion, and I regret not having the opportunity of seeing Act 1 of Tosca in St Columb’s Cathedral, but while NI Opera clearly have great ambitions for what opera can bring to the people of the province, there are clearly some objectives that just may be a little bit beyond their range of influence.