The show must go on, come Fludde or shine
THE WEATHER is the great enemy of opera in the open air. Any of the elements can cause trouble. In Ireland the biggest risk is the rain. Even if you go to the trouble of providing protective cover for the audience, as the Lismore Music Festival does, the noise of heavy rain can still effectively blot the music out. It happened with a vengeance at this year’s opening performance.
Wind is a notorious problem, too. If it’s in the wrong direction, it can carry the sound away from the audience, and even gentle gusts can make the music come and go as it does from unreliable radio reception. And, horror of horrors, there can even be problems when everything seems perfect, as was the case in sunny Belfast Zoo last Friday, for NI Opera’s new production of Britten’s Noye’s Fludde, when dazzle from the sun made for uncomfortable viewing, depending on where you were sitting.
NI Opera and its artistic director Oliver Mears have been assiduously ticking all the right boxes over the first 18 months of the company’s existence. There was the site-specific production of Tosca in Derry, which saw the company emphasising its reach by choosing to make its first artistic statement in a regional centre rather than in Belfast. There was Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, a co-production with Scottish Opera, which boasted a topical new text by Rory Bremner.
After that came Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel with two young Irish leads, and a production of Britten’s Turn of the Screw that was unusually successful in evoking the oppressive atmosphere of an isolated house. And there was NI Opera Shorts, a clutch of short new operas by Northern Irish composers and writers, which also took the company’s work to London – both Noye’s Fludde and the Opera Shorts are part of the ongoing London 2012 Festival.
Noye’s Fludde is, of course, a community opera par excellence. The original idea for a work based on a medieval mystery play came from a producer of schools’ programmes at a commercial television company. By the time the original commission fell through the composer was hooked on the idea, and Noye’s Fludde, with a cast and orchestra mainly of children, saw the light of day for the first time in Orford Church during the 1958 Aldeburgh Festival.
There’s a world of difference between a Suffolk church and an atmospheric waterside setting in Belfast Zoo. The losses in Mears’s production on Friday were musical. The orchestra was placed behind the audience, and the amplification that was necessary in the open-air setting coloured the efforts of conductor Nicholas Chalmers and his enthusiastic young charges, so that some of the most inventive of Britten’s orchestral effects were not heard to best advantage – the orchestra includes recorders and bugles (but no conventional woodwind or brass) as well as a chorus of handbells and all sorts of strange percussion instruments.
The gains were those of theatrical freedom and scale. Designer Simon Holdsworth’s ark looked like something that had been hit by a bomb. But its various sections were easily levered up and out, and joined together to make a boat that could house the long procession of animals that arrived in the form of Chinese lanterns and kites, carried on sticks by the chorus of children. The spectacle was simply gorgeous, not just the actual procession but also the display when everyone was safely on the boat.
Marty Maguire provided a suitably imposing Voice of God (God speaks but doesn’t sing), with Paul Carey Jones a compassionate Noye and Noreen Curran as the comically obstructive Mrs Noye – she and her friends, the Gossips, were all got up as wannabe Wags. The children with solo parts were all assured and effective, and the strength of Britten’s vision, using available resources, and framing the piece with congregational hymns (with some peculiarly wandering bass lines) at key moments, has stood the test of time extraordinarily well.