NI Opera


Bear

William Walton - The Bear

NI Opera, 2013 | Nicholas Chalmers, Oliver Mears, Anna Burford, Andrew Rupp, John Molloy | The MAC, Belfast - 26 March 2013

There was quite a change of content, style and scale between NI Opera’s last production of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman for the Grand Opera last month and their production of William Walton’s short one-act chamber opera The Bear, performed at the smaller arts theatre of the MAC in Belfast. Directed again by Oliver Mears with Nicholas Chalmers conducting, The Bear at least conformed to Wagner’s preference to have the orchestra and conductor remaining invisible to the audience, but that’s about the only level on which The Bear can be compared to Wagner. Walton’s work was far from the most challenging NI Opera production then and the merits of the work itself are questionable, but in terms of the approach adopted for this lightly humorous work, it was everything it should be.

Based on a comic short play by Chekhov, ‘The Bear‘ is not one of the Russian master’s more notable works that stand as masterpieces of the dramatic repertoire like ‘The Cherry Orchard‘, ‘The Seagull‘ or ‘Three Sisters‘. It’s one of Chekhov’s earlier comedies that has its own peculiarly Russian sense of humour and it is also rather dated by today’s standards. Walton’s opera version of the work, written in 1967, is an almost identical word-for-word adaptation that retains the pace, the dynamic and the tone of the original work, with its comic interplay operating effectively between just three characters.

The comedy revolves around the widow Yeliena Ivanovna Popova who has been in mourning for her dead husband Nicolai Mihailovich for almost a year now. That’s a period of grieving that is regarded as most unseemly by her footman Luka, who wept over the death of his old lady for a month - but seven? Well, the old woman wasn’t worth that and surely no-one is, not even Nicolai Mihailovich. Yeliena Popova moreover is still young and there’s a whole regiment of troops billeted in a nearby district, so Luka don’t know what all the fuss is about. It’s a middle-aged landowner Grigory Stepanovitch Smirnov however who makes an impression when he appears at the household trying to recover one of her husband’s debts, but the road to courtship is not without some trouble along the way.

The Bear, as the title might suggest, is very much as a parody on distinctly extreme Russian qualities and characteristics involving drinking vodka (the name Smirnov obviously gets an extra laugh here), running up debts, extravagant mourning, headlong plunges into deep emotions and fiery outbursts of temper that lead to duels. It may not be one of Chekhov’s most insightful serious works, and the farcical humour might appear to be slightly dated, but the manner and the truth of the characteristics he exposes through this short comic situation are no less precise and revealing. It’s hard to fault Walton’s take on the work either other than on similar questions of musical fashion and personal taste. It’s a genuinely comic score of a kind that is all too rarely heard, perfectly matching the tone of the drama, with jaunty rhythms and tooting instruments, extending ‘ooohh!’s and expressions of despair to the point where they do indeed become funny - but it’s all very much in a music-hall kind of idiom. It’s pleasant and entertaining but by no means a great work.

Obviously however with a small cast, a chamber score and a situation with plenty of dramatic incident, there is ample compensation in the opportunities The Bear provides in the performance of the musicians and the singers. That depends very much of course upon the director and the conductor working together to the rhythms and the pace of the work and with the solid team of Oliver Mears and Nicholas Chalmers there are no problems there. All of the singers moreover are simply marvellous. John Molloy, a Wexford regular, is something of an expert on rare material, particularly those with comic interplay, and he’s excellent here as Smirnov. The other young members of the cast are just as impressive, Andrew Rupp’s Luka getting the best laughs, but it’s Anna Burford ’s Yeliena Popova who has to carry much of the work’s comedy and singing challenges and she does so exceptionally well, never faltering in even some of the more testing situations.

One of only two operatic works written by William Walton (the other being Troilus and Cressida, written in 1954), The Bear might not be one of the greatest or most challenging opera works, but it is designed to be lightly entertaining and funny and NI Opera’s production certainly brought out those qualities. You can’t ask for more than that. NI Opera’s production of The Bear at the MAC in Belfast was programmed with five Songs and Sonnets from Shakespeare in beautiful jazz-influenced musical and choral arrangements by George Shearing (1919-2011).

DutchmanRichard Wagner - The Flying Dutchman

NI Opera, 2013 | Nicholas Chalmers, Oliver Mears, Bruno Caproni, Giselle Allen, Stephen Richardson, Paul McNamara, Adrian Dwyer, Doreen Curran | Grand Opera House, Belfast, 15th & 17th February 2013

The outcome was never really in doubt. NI Opera’s award-winning track record has been impressive since their inception two years ago, the scale and calibre of the works presented increasingly ambitious, from Menotti’s The Medium and Puccini’s site-specific Tosca in Derry through to newly commissioned work for NI Opera Shorts and a production of Noye’s Fludde that travelled to Beijing. Putting on a Wagner opera however is a challenge on another scale entirely. Even if Der Fliegende Holländer is one of the composer’s shorter works, it is scarcely any less demanding in the very specific orchestral and singing requirements that are quite different from the popular aria-driven Italian opera.

Admittedly however, while the First Act of the English language version of The Flying Dutchman was capably performed here at the Grand Opera House in Belfast - the first ever fully-staged performance of the work in Northern Ireland - it did feel a little flat. Something was missing. Still, no cause for immediate concern. The First Act of The Flying Dutchman is quite difficult, the stormy overture a prelude to a gloom-laden hour of long passages of deep, grave male singing - mostly basses and baritones - as the dark figure of the Dutchman recounts the horror of his curse, doomed to sail the seas for eternity, finding land again after seven years in the vain hope that the love of a good and faithful woman will set him free. There’s not a whole lot of light and shade here, much less dramatic action and, even with the familiarity now of Wagner’s brilliant leitmotifs and their hints of what is to come, it’s always been a fairly demanding opening sequence.

Like much of Wagner though you just have to bear with it, as the forthcoming rewards more often than not merit the long drawn-out pacing and slow development of situations. (And yes, I realise that this review seems to be adopting the same principle - long-windedly positing doom and gloom with the promise of redemption to come). That’s because Wagner has a secret weapon in reserve for the Second Act, which is the arrival of Senta. It’s a device that Wagner would unleash in a more fluid manner in the revised version of the opera - played straight through with linking sections and no breaks between acts - but if you listen carefully she’s there in a leitmotif during the Vorspiel to Act One. Recognising this, NI Opera’s production did indeed effectively and with musical validity try to lift the First Act by bringing forward Senta’s first appearance to the dreamily melancholic Senta leitmotif in the overture, the young woman walking across a stormy shoreline as the snow starts to fall. And it even sounded to me like conductor Nicholas Chalmers wrung an extra ounce of romantic sensitivity out of the Ulster Orchestra during this sequence. Despite the dramatic shortcomings then and musical unevenness of the weighty first Act (Daland and the Dutchman’s duet sounding like something that has wandered in from an Italian opera) with a staging was unable to give it any kind of boost, this nonetheless boded promisingly for what was to come.

We had to wait until after the interval then for the deployment of Wagner’s incendiary device, but NI Opera clearly also had one or two secret weapons of their own in their armoury to ensure that this Dutchman took flight. One was the remarkable performance of Giselle Allen as Senta, the other was the energetic drive and virtuosity of the Ulster Orchestra. OK, nothing there that will really come as any great surprise to those of us familiar with the qualities Northern Ireland’s finest, but the way they were brought into play was impressive nonetheless. You could virtually hear a sigh of relief from the audience as the curtain lifted on what looked like a church assembly hall in the 1970s - a bright, colourful scene-shift from the gloom of Act One - where the ladies sat spinning at their Singer sewing machines, the beauty of the assembled female voices soaring with optimism and hope that the sea would deliver the safe return of their men.

Doreen Curran’s glowering Mary wonderfully kept the proceedings from getting too cheery, but it was of course the ringing tones of Giselle Allen’s Senta whose romantic spinning of the tale of the cursed captain and his crew dominated and directed the whole tone of the Second Act. Responding to the urgings of her fellow seamstresses, this Senta did indeed seem to be possessed by a demon, sitting down and seeming to slip into a trance as she recounted the myth of the Flying Dutchman. Much as Chalmers managed to place some emphasis on the Vorspiel’s dreamy Senta leitmotif, stage director Oliver Mears similarly allowed Senta’s romanticism to invade the whole work whenever she was present, allowing the necessary spell to be woven that would make the Dutchman’s arrival - and the long silent gaze that lies between them - all the more dramatic. Retaking the same positions into this locked gaze after their duet, it was as if the romanticism of the encounter takes place in more in Senta’s head than in reality.

Dramatically then, as well as in the all-important delivery of the exceptional singing demands that are necessary to make this work convincingly, NI Opera’s The Flying Dutchman succeeded at least in finding the right tone. It even allowed for one or two moments of humour to sit well alongside all the weighty recounting of ancient legends, such as Senta’s father Daland approving of the couple making each other’s acquaintance while they are in the middle of a hot-and-heavy, passionate, sweeping-everything-off-the-table kind of entanglement on the nearest available substitute for a bed. Quite why the setting of the seventies was chosen however wasn’t entirely clear. There didn’t appear to be any real attempt to connect the legend of the Dutchman to the Troubles, even if there is a certain amount of recognition of Belfast’s history as a port and ship-building city. There’s no obligation of course for NI Opera to make every local production site-specific, and attempting to do so with Wagner could lead to some ill-advised and ill-fitting parallels that would never work convincingly (Senta a militant activist waiting for the delivery of an arms shipment? The homeless “Dutchman” seeking to rid himself of the curse of his nation’s occupation?), so perhaps allowing the work to speak for itself in the 70s is enough. It certainly worked on those terms alone.

Well, not quite alone. Both the male and the female choruses were in wonderful voice and with the driving accompaniment of the orchestra, their powerful contribution to the impact of the overall work was well directed and delivered. Crucially however there were also solid performances from the main roles in Bruno Caproni’s brooding Dutchman and Giselle Allen’s obsessive Senta. The Belfast soprano sustained a magnificent tension right the second act and the close of the third, a veritable Senta-bomb that exploded on the stage of the Grand Opera House in a blood-drenched death scene climax of nerve-shattering high notes. If my own reaction is anything to go by, the audience were surely gasping for breath by that point. If you can’t achieve that kind of impact doing Wagner though, there’s really no point even attempting it, but when you have Giselle Allen and the Ulster Orchestra at your disposal and operating on the kind of form shown here, there was never likely to be any serious concern about the outcome.

NIOperaShortsVarious - NI Opera Shorts

NI Opera, 2012 | Fergus Sheil, Rachel O’Riordan, Giselle Allen, Alex Connolly, Doreen Curran, Paul Carey Jones, Mary McCabe, Eamonn Mulhall, Aaron O’Hare, Gemma Prince, Marcella Walsh | The MAC Belfast, 29 June 2012

Our Day by Conor Mitchell and Mark Ravenhill.
Jackie’s Taxi by Ed Bennett and Stacey Gregg.
The Girl Who Knew She Could Fly by Christopher Norby and Frank McGuinness.
Driven by Deirdre McKay and Richard Dormer.
May Contain Flash Photography by Brian Irvine and Owen McCafferty.

The most ambitious project undertaken yet by the recently formed NI Opera, following an award-winning season that wasn’t exactly short of innovation or experimentation - NI Opera Shorts is a bold venture into the risky territory of contemporary opera. Commissioned as part of the London 2012 Festival celebrations around the summer Olympics, NI Opera Shorts consists of five new short opera works - each running for no more than 15 to 20 minutes - showcasing the work of five local composers, written with local, UK and Irish playwrights. Despite the considerable differences between them in terms of approach, style and tone, there was however a remarkable consistency and coherency that arose out of bringing them together in this way, a fact undoubtedly due to a large extent to the creative team’s vision of the concept and the exceptional performances of the singers and the Ulster Orchestra.

Each of the five short works however has its own dramatic impact, particularly when condensed down into the highly-charged form of the opera short. Our Day by Conor Mitchell and Mark Ravenhill has perhaps the most intense experience in terms of its subject and how it relates most directly to the Troubles, but it’s also extraordinarily ambitious in how it concentrates all complex history and emotional content of that experience into one day and into 15-20 minutes of musical and vocal expression. Dealing with the reaction of one family to a British soldier found wounded on the street, the fear, suspicion, hatred and pain is felt on both sides, mixed in with deeper natural human feelings of grief, loss and compassion that have been suppressed or twisted beyond all recognition. Ravenhill sets this one moment of concentrated feeling moreover on one day in 1972 - at the height of the Troubles when, like that famous Christmas football match on the WWI trenches, all Northern Ireland stopped and came together to celebrate the Olympic gold medal win of Mary Peters, a positive moment of beauty, amazement and achievement that throws the twisted reality of what is happening on the streets into perspective.

The raw emotion of that moment is ratcheted up to an almost unbearable level of tension - I could feel myself clenched up in my seat - as guns are waved and shot, as voices are pitched against each other in hatred and fury almost to the level of a scream, with Conor Mitchell’s discordant and aggressively disturbing atonal accompaniment matching the extremity of all those complex, contradictory feelings compressed into such a small time-frame. It put me in mind of Strauss’ Elektra for the intensity of feeling, and dissection of moment-to-moment conflicting emotions, and I daresay you could even apply twisted family archetypes to the arrangement of the protagonists, so rich in allusion is the piece. A large part in putting this across relied on singers being pushed to their limits, and really, the work of Giselle Allen, Marcella Walsh and Eamonn Mulhall was extraordinarily powerful and genuinely chilling.

Ed Bennett and Stacey Gregg’s Jackie’s Taxi is, by contrast, much more up to the minute with the everyday reality on the streets of contemporary Belfast. It may throw in all the expected topical buzzwords of Facebook, blogs and references to Steve Jobs, but it does so in a way that is specific to present-day Belfast - or at least certain parts of it. I never thought I’d see the day when Belfast hoods, millies and spides would appear on an opera stage, but Jackie’s Taxi successfully manages to do that, and do it in a naturalistic way that doesn’t feel too forced or over-dramatised. The language is appropriately as colourful as the subject matter. Sung in English, in chanted lines with strong Belfast accents, it wasn’t always easy to follow the narrative context - something to do with a taxi driver who makes a few drug deliveries on the side complaining about the hazards of her profession and the standard of her clientele - but musically, with Ed Bennett’s Steve Reich-like percussive rhythms, Jackie’s Taxi captured the Belfast beat much better than any of the other pieces, without having to resort to evoking folk or traditional arrangements. In the music, you can sense the pulse of Belfast, the tension and aggression, the humour and the tendency to enjoy a good moan and it fitted perfectly with the use of language and the content, the staging and choreography ensuring that the piece functioned fully in operatic terms.

I felt that this comprehensive operatic dimension that was evident in the first two pieces, was missing from Christopher Norby and Frank McGuinness’s The Girl Who Knew She Could Fly. McGuinness is one of Ireland’s finest playwrights, and his evocation of two parents commemorating the death of their daughter at the site where she jumped to her death from a motorway bridge was beautiful in its concision as a short drama piece. The monologues of the two characters interweave without ever fully connecting, reflecting how each of them is caught up in the torment of their own shattered lives, caught up in a dance of death and despair that holds them together yet keeps them separate. Those sentiments are expressed just as lyrically in Christopher Norby’s Avro Pärt-like score, but it all felt too interiorised and the whole piece never came together in operatic or dramatic terms, the two singers - finely sung by Doreen Curran and Paul Carey Jones, the voices beautifully arranged for the score - looking out for the most part towards the audience over the motorway. The sound of passing cars and the daughter’s voice added additional textures and tone to the work, but if there was a wider dimension to the relating of the circumstances to the daughter’s death, it was difficult to grasp from this single performance.

Evidence however that a dramatic monologue can be operatically expressive (in the manner of Schoenberg’s monodrama Ewartung or Frid’s The Diary of Anne Frank) was provided here by Deirdre McKay and Richard Dormer’s Driven. Like Mitchell and Ravenhill’s Our Day, the success of the work lies in how it bridges the complex relationship between the interior and the external, between what drives one to unfathomable actions in response to a distorted view of nature that has been corrupted by war. Driven relates to the figure of Blair Mayne, a highly-decorated soldier who survived dangerous WWII operations and was named as a threat by Hitler, yet this man comes to meet his death driving a red Riley car at speed down a road in County Down. Entering into the mindset of Mayne, the inner conflict, the nightmarish visions that plague him, his attempts to come to terms with his experiences was powerfully expressed by Eamonn Mulhall and vividly put across through his pacing on the all-purpose staging through effective choreography and lighting. The whole piece was given a perfect musical expression in McKay’s driving Nyman-esque chugging cellos and blaring brass that blended the furious churning of memories and impressions with the momentum of the speeding car. An occasional lilt of traditional Irish arrangements could be detected underlying parts of the score - the only work to draw from such sources - but it was used meaningfully and lyrically in the context of the work. For a monodrama to work so well, it demands a compelling performance on the part of the singer and the orchestra and Driven was consummately dramatic, operatic and emotionally charged.

Drama was predominately to the fore in Brian Irvine and Owen McCafferty’s May Contain Flash Photography, but coming from the pen of one of Northern Ireland’s foremost and most successful contemporary playwrights, that’s not unexpected. The strength of McCafferty’s writing here is the same as in his regular dramas, finding an authentic tone and language for the province’s sense of humour and tying it into a peculiarly absurdist outlook that reflects the self-awareness of hopeless cases who would like to believe that somehow they can overcome the odds - as many have done - but somehow realise the dream itself can be more than enough. Here in May Contain Flash Photography, a family watch a curious alternate-reality lottery where the balls relate to emotions, colours and materials rather than to numbers, hoping that the winning combination will change their lives. The humour is a little hit and miss (and not always each to catch on a single run-through), but humour is difficult to achieve in an opera in any case, particularly in such a short piece. It’s fairly ambitious however to attempt this with a relatively large cast of six characters, all of whom have distinct dreams and expression, but the interaction was exceptionally good. Musically, I wouldn’t have thought a Britten-like style of scoring would have worked in such a context, but Brian Irvine fitted the musical arrangements to the drama very well, the composer particularly strong in bringing the whole range of voices, feelings and overlapping monologues together into a harmonious whole.

What was most memorable about the NI Opera Shorts however wasn’t the quality of the individual contributions, but the sheer variety and the broadness of the scope that they covered. It was thrilling to see the diverse range of ideas that these individual voices brought to the project - an impressive showcase of contemporary Northern Irish opera work that one would rarely have the opportunity to hear performed - but despite the wide spread of musical and dramatic approaches, there was actually a wonderfully complementary diversity to the project as a whole that reflected so many aspects of Northern Irish history, personality and culture. A lot of credit for allowing that to happen has to go to the NI Opera’s artistic director Oliver Mears for pulling this hugely ambitious work together and to the stage director Rachel O’Riordan, who met the considerable challenge of making one stage set suit five very different works, but also found the most effective means of putting each of them across in terms of mood and theatrical presentation.

The highest credit of all however must be given to Fergus Shiel and the Ulster Orchestra who brought these short intense works fully to life in all their rhythmic and lyrical complexity as well as their often difficult serial discordance, switching tone between one work and the next with scarcely a pause other than to adjust to the varied instrumental requirements of each piece. In the relatively small venue of the newly opened Belfast MAC, the audience were able to witness the intricacy of the orchestra’s performance of those arrangements, and it was impressive to behold. The intimacy of the venue (one hopes it will be used again for similarly smaller-scale and even local operatic works in the future) means that there is nowhere to hide any weaknesses, and in this respect the singing of such difficult works must also be judged to be of the highest order, with some fine new talent on display as well as the reliable strengths of Doreen Curran, Paul Carey Jones and Giselle Allen. I’ve yet to be disappointed by anything that the recently formed NI Opera have put on, but with the opening work of their second season, they continue to take on fresh new challenges. Their most ambitious project so far, NI Opera Shorts was another resounding success.

Benjamin Britten - The Turn of the Screw

NI Opera, 2012 | Nicholas Chalmers, Oliver Mears, Fiona Murphy, Andrew Tortise, Giselle Allen, Yvonne Howard, Lucia Vernon, Thomas Copeland | Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey, 2 March 2012

There was nothing too clever attempted in NI Opera’s new production of The Turn of the Screw, certainly nothing as ambitious as their award-winning production of Tosca on the walls of Derry City, but Britten’s atmospheric little chamber piece doesn’t really need anything more than an intimate environment to achieve optimum effect, and that was certainly achieved with the choice of venue at the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey. The attention to detail then was in letting the music and libretto of this powerful little piece speak for itself, and with the benefit of an excellent cast of fine singers that was admirably achieved.

Screw
This is the third production from the recently formed NI Opera that I’ve seen at the Theatre at the Mill (with only one production so far, Hansel and Gretel, at the more traditional venue of the Grand Opera House in Belfast), and while one of those productions was a scaled-down romp through Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld (in conjunction with Scottish Opera), the venue has been particularly well-suited to the theatrical intimacy of something like Menotti’s The Medium and now with Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. The smaller-scale staging of course makes the works suitable for touring – an important remit of the opera company to attract new audiences from traditionally neglected parts of the province – but it’s also the best way to introduce an audience to the close relationship between a music score and a theatrical performance that takes expression to another level, and in that respect The Turn of the Screw is perhaps the most challenging of the NI Opera productions thus far.

Henry James’s novella is well-enough known, adapted numerous times for TV and cinema, and highly influential in the field of Victorian ghost stories because of the dark ambiguities that lie at the heart of the work. The story of a Governess who is engaged to look after two children, Flora and Miles, on a country estate, there are disturbing hints of child abuse or at least bad influence in the children’s relationship with two former servants, Quint and Miss Jessel, who had been engaged there previously. The Governess, half in love with the guardian of the children but forbidden from disturbing from his work in the city on any pretext, seems to conjure the spirits of the malevolent former servants – both now dead – partly out of concern for strange behaviour she witnesses in the children, partly from her own repressed urges at the suggestion of Quint and Miss Jessel’s scandalous behaviour, and partly as an excuse to get in touch with the children’s guardian.

Nothing however can be pinned-down to simple cause and effect in The Turn of the Screw and there’s no easy separation of rational and supernatural. All of what happens could be caused by the projections of the mind of the Governess, her behaviour, repression, suspicion and hysteria (heighted by stories told to her by housekeeper Mrs Grose) and her desire to protect the innocence of the children from baser adult desires (that she herself is subject to), in turn creating its own pernicious stifling repressive atmosphere. Or it could indeed be that she and the children do indeed operate under the influence of past events instigated by Quint and Miss Jessel, who are shown as ghosts and apparitions who appear throughout the work and seem to interact with the children, awakening troubling memories.

Screw

The Turn of the Screw is by no means then an easy work on a narrative or musical level, particularly for a newer audience in a non-traditional venue for an opera, but the power of the work and its ability to provoke and unsettle can surely be felt by anyone. It’s not just about creating effects with half-glimpsed apparitions in dark rooms, but it’s rather in the haunting motifs of the score and the singing that other ambiguities and unsettling ideas are suggested. If the set designed by Annemarie Woods for the NI Opera production tended towards functional minimalism, and the direction of Oliver Mears didn’t seem to attempt to add any new conceptual spin to the story, it was all the more to allow the score to speak of these ambiguities itself and not point the listener towards any safe or easy conclusion.

The sets in fact, were highly effective, not only suggesting mood and location with the shifting of walls, doors and windows, but in their arrangement being capable of opening up space or closing it down with suffocating angles. Mears directorial touches did emphasise some unnatural closeness developing in the physical contact between the Governess and Miles, but this relationship with the younger boy is undoubtedly a crucial aspect of the work, certainly in as far as it concerns Britten and his own inclinations (or indeed those of Henry James), and it shouldn’t be overlooked. At the same time, it didn’t attempt to impose a definitive reading, and it’s left – as it should be – to each member of the audience to draw their own conclusions. The Turn of the Screw can indeed be just a ghost story if that’s all you want to see in it, and Britten’s music can be seen as purely spectrally unsettling as well as being suggestive of other abstract notions and concepts.

While the score – brilliantly performed by the orchestra under the direction of Nicholas Chalmers – and the setting for the drama provided much to consider in its own terms, they were most successful in the relationship it formed with the singers. Really, the singing in all the principal roles was beyond reproach, with Fiona Murphy pushing all the ambiguities of the role of the Governess with some fine singing, Andrew Tortise a seductively dangerous Quint, and Giselle Allen reprising the role of Miss Jessel that she performed last year to such powerful effect at Glyndebourne. Yvonne Howard however deserves special mention for Mrs Grose, one of the best singers I’ve heard in the role. The children also, critical to the whole ambiguity between innocence and experience in the opera were, were played well by Lucia Vernon and particularly young Thomas Copeland, who sang Miles wonderfully, his refrain of ‘Malo’ simultaneously wistful, regretful and sinister, and his famous condemnation of Quint at the finale was powerfully effective.

Hansel and GretelEngelbert Humperdinck - Hansel and Gretel

NI Opera, 2011 | Oliver Mears, David Brophy, Niamh Kelly, Aoife O’Sullivan, Graham Clark, Doreen Curran, Paul Carey Jones, Aoife Miskelly, Rebekah Coffey | Grand Opera House, Belfast - 25 November 2011

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the annual Christmas pantomime had arrived just slightly earlier than usual at the Grand Opera House this year judging by the number of parents with kids, the rustling of crisp packets and a lack of the normal respectful silence one would be accustomed to during the overture to an opera production at the august Belfast venue. But that’s the beauty of Humperdinck’s Hansel & Gretel, which has the traditional fairytale elements that appeal to children, but also has a sumptuous score for opera lovers that lies in the Wagnerian tradition, if somewhat on the lighter side of the Teutonic scale. It’s also the beauty of the new approach to opera being taken by the director of NI Opera, Oliver Mears, who has not only gone out to smaller venues throughout Northern Ireland to seek out a new audience, but, as in the company’s approach to Tosca earlier this year with each of the three acts taking place in Derry in separate venues with local significance, he has also taken into consideration new ways to engage an audience and new ways to present an opera production.

The broad appeal characteristics of Hansel and Gretel however can still make it difficult to judge at what level to pitch it. As NI Opera’s first full-scale production at the Grand Opera House, following a number of smaller chamber works in other venues across the province, there must be an equal temptation to appease the traditional opera fans in the audience as much as play-up the fairy-tale elements and appeal to a new, younger audience who will undoubtedly engage with the strong mix of music, comedy, drama, horror and spectacle that the opera offers. To his credit, Mears doesn’t appear to attempt to steer the opera in any single direction, but instead pays close attention to the composition itself and allows the inherent playful but sinister qualities of Humperdinck’s work to find their own expression without having to make concessions to one audience or the other.

Like most fairytales, and certainly in the case of many of the works of the Brothers Grimm, the cautionary stories often have dark origins. Those are certainly there in Hansel and Gretel, they are there in Humperdinck’s opera and they are not at all underplayed or softened for a younger audience in this production. While the image of the gingerbread house filled with sweets is the most attractive and memorable image associated with the story there’s a warning about the dangers of gluttony in the fattening up of Hansel to be a tasty meal for the witch in the woods who uses her abode to lure young children to their doom. There’s evidently a cautionary element there also relating to the dangers of taking sweets from strangers – the unsettling posters of missing children in this production highlighting that this is more than just children lost in the woods – which takes the story into very dark territory indeed. There are also darker undercurrents in the story and in the opera concerning the relationship of the parents – an authoritative, even perhaps abusive mother and an alcoholic father – and how this relates to the children running away.

Hansel and Gretel

NI Opera’s production consequently avoided all the sugary-sweet Bavarian fairytale elements normally associated with the story, and instead set Act 1 in a rather more familiar modern home setting, even if some of the elements had a rather disturbing but delightfully subversive David Lynch feel to them. Much in the manner in which Lynch’s nightmares seep into the real world, a painting made by the children of a yellow stickman in the dark woods and stuck onto the fridge, forms the backdrop to Act II, the Sandman stepping eerily out of the painting to sprinkle sleep dust onto the children. In contrast to the chatter throughout Act 1 and enjoyment of the childish antics of the two children on the stage, you could have heard a pin drop at this moment, and undoubtedly terrifying as it might appear to the younger children in the audience, it’s an image that would certainly make a strong, memorable impression. Hansel and Gretel’s subsequent dream of the magical angels doesn’t bring any comfort to the children in the audience either, depicting a birthday feast where the mother’s head is presented on a platter.

Act III appears to go into full pantomime mode, with Graham Clark’s Witch almost rivalling May McFetteridge as the Belfast stage’s long-standing traditional pantomime Grand Dame, ending up spinning hilariously and eventually splattered gorily across the window of the giant microwave oven that emerges to dominate the set, but again, there is no holding back on the dark elements that are there in the plot and indeed in the deliciously rich musical score that does indeed have mystical Das Rheingold qualities. Like David Brophy’s conducting of the Ulster Orchestra, each of the singers played their part in reaching into the characters themselves for those deeper dark elements, but managed to balance this with a playful way that they are often expressed. Neither the score nor the singing could always compete with the spoken-out-loud reactions of the children in the audience, but Niamh Kelly’s mischievous Hansel, Paul Carey Jones’ strong deep baritone Father, Rebekah Coffey’s creepy Sandman and Graham Clarke’s well-judged performance and presence all commanded attention.

Performing Hansel and Gretel for an untypical opera audience no doubt presents some difficulties, but NI Opera, in their first full production as the new local opera company, seem once again to have got the balance absolutely right. They clearly know how to reach their audience, and it’s not by talking down to either the newer, younger audience or by aiming to satisfy expectations of traditional opera-goers. Rather, as previous productions have likewise shown, there has evidently been careful consideration given to the selection of works to present, less familiar operas certainly, but ones which ultimately can reach out and engage a modern audience. The NI Opera production of Hansel and Gretel, with the Ulster Orchestra, demonstrates that this needn’t involve any artistic compromise, but that through close attention to the score and the libretto itself, trusting in the strength of the characters and in the depth that is accorded to them through Humperdinck’s score, the work can be, should be and indeed was, eerie, enchanting and engaging in equal measures for the whole audience.

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.

MediumGian Carlo Menotti - The Medium

NI Opera / Second Movement | Oliver Mears, Nicholas Chalmers, Doreen Curran, Yvette Bonner, Will Stokes, David Butt Philip, Jane Harrington, Alison Dunne | Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey - February 15th, 2011

One of a number of smaller scale events being organised by the newly formed Northern Ireland Opera prior to their official inaugural multi-staged version of Tosca, where each act will be performed in different locations in Derry-Londonderry, the staging of Gian Carlo Menotti’s 1946 chamber opera at the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey last night was a promising taster, one hopes, of a sign of the company’s adventurousness in its attempts to raise awareness of opera through performances of lesser-known works and through events that are less traditional in their presentation.

Menotti’s The Medium, a short 65 minute two act piece which has been adapted for film and television in the past, can hardly be called adventurous, but its production by Second Movement under the direction of NI Opera’s artistic director Oliver Mears, proved to be musically refreshing and the opera itself opened up some interesting ideas. Based on a real-life experience of the composer’s at a séance while holidaying in Austria with Samuel Barber, it’s tempting to compare the piece to Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, if only because of the sparseness of the orchestration and the ability of the instruments to evoke a spooky atmosphere, but while it remains similarly ambiguous on the question of what is real and what is imagined or projected by the protagonists, The Medium, with its more variably toned score, seems to touch on wider aspects of self-delusion and even mass-hysteria than Henry James’ tale of Victorian sexual repression.

Prior to this production, the only piece I would have been familiar with from this opera, or indeed from Menotti for that matter, would have been Monica’s Waltz, recorded by Renée Fleming on her album I Want Magic, and delicately performed here by Yvette Bonner, with a tone more appropriate to the age of her young character than Fleming’s dramatic rendition. It’s this piece, sung at the start of Act 2 by Monica the daughter of the false medium, Baba – or Madame Flora as she is known – to Toby, a young orphan with no voice found on the streets of Budapest and taken into the household as a servant, that opens up the opera to wider aspects than its central dramatic subject of a fake séance that goes terribly wrong. In it, the young girl projects onto the silent Toby all her romantic desires for going out dancing and to the theatre, giving him the voice that she longs to hear.

MediumMonica’s desires are no different from those of the customers who come to Madame Flora looking to get into contact with their dead children – Jane Harrington’s recounting of the drowning of the Gobineau’s two-year old child was delivered most effectively and chillingly, fully expressing those emotions that bring them to the medium – as an attempt to fill the void that has been left in their lives. Even Baba actions, as can be judged by her rescuing of an orphan – even the fact that she mistreats him – her alcoholism and her attempts to feel important as Madame Baba, speak of a deeper void that needs to be filled, and Doreen Curran’s well-sung performance of the role is dramatically commanding and emotionally sensitive in this respect as her drink-addled confusion and fears of tapping into something more sinister pushes her into near-hysteria.

With each of the characters suffering from self-induced delusions of one kind or another, it might not be pushing it too far, considering the immediate post-war writing of The Medium, to consider this kind of mass hysteria and the dangerous places it can lead to as a reaction to the Second World War. There is nothing specific in the opera that leads one to consider it in those terms, but there is undoubtedly a correlation between the séance and a nation looking to someone like Hitler to give them a voice and sense of meaning, and – particularly in Toby, the opera’s silent character, one who significantly plays with glove puppets – there’s enough ambiguity to make wider associations. It’s in this necessary space that an audience is likewise expected to project their own desires, and it’s there that the opera is ultimately successful.