Ulster Orchestra


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.

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.