Opera Theatre Company flounders as 'Wozzeck' is put on hold

Giselle Allen: 'Thrilling in moments of stress and emphasis'

Giselle Allen: 'Thrilling in moments of stress and emphasis'

Tue, Feb 19, 2013, 00:00

One of the largest opera projects of the year is now off the calendar, a symptom of the problems at Opera Theatre Company

This time last year, after one of the most fraught periods in the history of opera in Ireland, it seemed as if prospects for the art form were on the up. The Arts Council had set up two new funding schemes, and the successful applications were nothing if not varied. The standouts were the innovatively festive and interactive approach of Cork’s Everyman Palace Theatre production of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and Wide Open Opera’s debut show at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, which revived Yannis Kokkos’s tried-and-trusted Welsh National Opera production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and added to its value with sterling performances by Irish singers Miriam Murphy and Imelda Drumm.

The Wexford Festival also had a good year, returning to traditional values, and giving the extremely variable reign of artistic director David Agler its biggest English-language success in Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet.

How things change. The departure of Opera Theatre Company’s artistic director Annilese Miskimmon – she became general manager and artistic director of Denmark’s Jyske Opera in September – seems to have left that company at sixes and sevens. A replacement for Miskimmon has yet to be appointed, and the company’s chief executive Kirsty Harris has now also left the scene.

OTC’s big 2013 project, the Irish premiere of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, in a site-specific production by Orpha Phelan with the full forces of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in Collins Barracks, is gone from the calendar. And, although the cancellation has not yet been announced by OTC nor by the Arts Council, a second production award, with a ceiling of €360,000 – the amount awarded for OTC’s Wozzeck – has been announced by the council for 2013.

It’s good that, with a limited range of options, the council chose to spend the money on opera. But it has led to a topsy-turvy situation. The closing date for applications for next year’s opera production awards – for productions to take place in the calendar year 2014 – is Thursday, February 21st. For the innocuously named “round two” of 2013 – for productions to take place before the end of this year – the deadline is a month later, Monday, March 25th. It will be fascinating to see what projects the hard-pressed opera sector will be able to pull together on such short notice.

OTC’s problems, by the way, don’t end with the lost Wozzeck, which the company is regarding as postponed rather than permanently dropped. The tour of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, planned for May, will now take place next year, and is being replaced this year with a tour of Bizet’s Carmen. The planned tour of Monteverdi’s Orfeo to the Buxton Festival, where Randall Shannon, the Arts Council’s opera specialist, is chief executive, has been dropped, due to a shortage of funds. The company is still planning to present Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore later this year, and Britten’s Albert Herring next year, and a new executive team is being recruited.

**

The weekend brought two new opera productions, one in Belfast, one in Dublin. NI Opera presented two performances of a home-generated production of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman in the Grand Opera House. This was, by all accounts, the first home-produced Wagner that Northern Ireland has seen, although back in 1990 Belfast did get a visit from City of Birmingham Touring Opera’s two-night condensed version of The Ring, which is more than Dublin has had of that great cycle in living memory. And Lyric Opera offered two nights of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro in the National Concert Hall.

The Belfast Dutchman, sung in the English translation by David Pountney, was one of those evenings that came to rather less than the sum of its parts. Neither director Oliver Mears nor conductor Nicholas Chalmers (with the Ulster Orchestra in the pit) always seemed sure how quite seriously they should be taking early Wagner.

Some of Mears’s comic touches, expressed though the sonorous Daland of Stephen Richardson, sat rather uneasily. And Chalmers never quite churned up the storm of sound or emotion that Wagner injected into this story of impossible, implausible love and redemption.

The evening’s hottest moments came from the Senta of soprano Giselle Allen, firm and ardent of tone, and thrilling in moments of stress and emphasis. In the title role, baritone Bruno Caproni presented a Dutchman very turned in on himself, not so much a towering tragic figure, as a rather lost one. The light tenor of Paul McNamara’s Erik brought the strongest injection of lyricism.

The mostly young chorus sang with thrusting if not always well-timed enthusiasm, though I’ve heard from someone who was at the second performance that issues of ensemble were tightened on Sunday. Simon Holdsworth’s designs – looming hulls and blowing snow in the outer acts, a bright 20th-century interior for the second act – were effective in their spareness.

**

The Dublin Nozze di Figaro, directed by Vivian Coates, was, by comparison, busy, busy, busy. And busiest of all was Alistair Kerr’s lighting, a medley of often lurid choices that changed in ways and at times that were not easy to connect with what was happening on stage.

The responsibility for the other major disconnect lay with conductor David Jones, who stuck to his guns as if he were oblivious to the regular gaps he allowed to open up between orchestra and singers.

The best singing came from the dignified Countess of Jennifer Davis, who combined calm and pathos with a sense of Mozartean style that eluded James Cleverton as her roving-eyed husband. In the downstairs couple, John Molloy was a resourceful Figaro, though Claudia Boyle’s Susanna never quite blossomed, as if this perkiest of sopranos hadn’t yet come to terms with the role. Sharon Carty’s Cherubino was agile and clear, while Miriam Murphy’s Marcellina was sure and solid.

**

The Offaly-born, UCC-trained, and now Massachusetts-resident composer Ann Cleare (born in 1983) was the subject of Tuesday’s RTÉ NSO Horizons concert conducted by Gavin Maloney at the NCH. Not only were her two works, phôsphors ( . . . of ether) and to another of that other (for bass clarinet, trumpet, trombone and orchestra, with soloists from Australia’s Elision ensemble) being heard for the first time, but they were also the first orchestral works she has written.

They are both astonishingly assured pieces, written in a complex, modernist style that I suspect quite a few of her Irish contemporaries might regard either as dated or beyond their technical reach. A very impressive debut.

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