Collins, Brendan


UnderworldJacques Offenbach - Orpheus in the Underworld

NI Opera & Scottish Opera, 2011 | Derek Clark, Oliver Mears, Rory Bremner, Nicholas Sherratt, Jane Harrington, Máire Flavin, Ross McInroy, Brendan Collins, Daire Halpin, Gavin Ring, Maire Claire Breen, Olivia Ray, Christopher Diffey | Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey, 31 October 2011

Written in 1858, Offenbach’s first full-length comic operetta was by no means intended to be merely just a retelling of the classic Greek myth, not indeed even just a satire on the use of the subject in so many operas, but it was also intended to be a satire of the times. Who better then to take on the necessary task of updating it for our own times (it’s hardly going to be meaningful to parody 19th century Parisian society), while retaining all the risqué humour and the political edge than impressionist comedian and satirist Rory Bremner for this joint production between Scottish Opera and Northern Ireland Opera of Orpheus in the Underworld (’Orphée aux enfers’).

You might think that celebrity marriages, society scandal and gossip were only a recent phenomenon introduced by tabloid newspapers and the publication of ‘Hello’ and ‘OK’, but no, it was clearly as much a subject of interest in Offenbach’s time as it doubtless was long before that, and a subject just as worthy of sending up. Here, Eurydice is enjoying life as a WAG, her husband the celebrity musician Orpheus (although she has a severe allergic reaction to his music), and Bremner’s witty working of the libretto captures all the glamour as well as the vacuousness of the celebrity lifestyle. Even though both Eurydice and Orpheus can’t stand each other any longer and are cheating on each other, they are concerned about Public Opinion (a character in the opera), and about what a divorce would do to their reputations.

Underworld

Unfortunately, Eurydice’s gym instructor with whom she is having an affair is not Aristaeus, as she believes, but Pluto, the God of the Underworld in disguise. The collusion between Pluto and Orpheus isn’t really brought out in this production, but in any case the end result is the same – an unfortunate “accident” that kills Eurydice, allowing Pluto to whisk her off to Hell. Public Opinion is not impressed, although Orpheus doesn’t seem too concerned, and she insists that he set matters right and appeal to the Gods on Olympus. They’re a decadent bunch but rather fed-up with the high-life and the meaningless little affairs that they’ve been carrying on, so the idea of slumming it in Hell on a rescue mission to recover Eurydice sounds like fun to them. Apollo, who can’t keep it in his pants, as we all know, also sees the chance of upstaging an old rival by stealing Eurydice for himself right from under Pluto’s nose and on his own turf.

Off they go, partying in the Underworld, dancing the Can-Can (the famous music of the Moulin Rouge indeed originating from this Offenbach operetta), to such lively arrangements, sordid liaisons and bitter rivalry, that Orpheus in the Underworld has all the ingredients for a classic opera plot, if it’s not exactly the way the classical subject is more often played out. Not least of the imaginative arrangements in this humorous treatment is Apollo, disguised as a giant fly, getting it on in a vibrating buzzing way with Eurydice. Perhaps surprisingly, such racy material and irreverence is all there in Offenbach’s original work, and – without wishing to take anything away from Bremner’s often funny and cleverly rhyming English update – it only takes a tweak or two to spice it up with some modern pop-culture references (and some local topical ones, depending on the venue).

Underworld

Still, that’s making it all sound a little easier than it really is. In order to carry off this kind of comic opera, you not only need good performers who can act as well as sing, but they also need to have a good sense of comic timing and rapport with each other. If you have that – and there’s no doubt that this was certainly the case in this production – when combined with the zippy, witty and dazzling arrangements from Offenbach that belie the apparent lightness of the material, you have a winning combination. Surprisingly, Orpheus isn’t one of the major characters in the opera, but Nicholas Sherratt worked well alongside Jane Harrington’s terrific characterisation of Eurydice (by way perhaps of Katie Price and Victoria Beckham). Handling the comedy acting and the singing parts with equal aplomb, she was a delight whenever she was on the stage. The meatier roles however were given over to Brendan Collins and Gavin Ring as Apollo and Pluto, who both managed to strike the right tone throughout, as well as carry off the more outrageous moments of comic interplay. The all-important satirical sense of moral outrage mixed with salacious prying and interference was brilliantly brought out in Máire Flavin’s schoolmarmish Public Opinion, but all the cast fully entered into the spirit of the piece.

Conducted by Derek Clark, the chamber arrangement played by the NI Opera Orchestra worked perfectly with the intimacy of the venue at Newtownabbey’s Theatre at the Mill, but with appropriate zest and timing that fully supported the outrageous on-stage activities. Following the Northern Ireland tour, the production travels to the Young Vic in London for a number of dates between the 1st and 10th December and this is one show that is well worth catching if you can-can.

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.