Carey Jones, Paul

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.

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.

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.