Opera's refusal to die on stage
Rumours of the death of opera have been greatly exaggerated, and a cohort of fresh Irish productions are in the pipeline, writes MICHAEL DERVAN
THE DEATH OF opera has been not just predicted but declared again and again. And again and again the artform simply refuses to go away. You could argue that opera has become a museum culture: that the Italian tradition, which is at the heart of the repertoire around the world, became moribund after Puccini’s Turandot, a work whose posthumous première took place as long ago as 1926; that most of the operas which large numbers of people still want to see are by composers long dead – although John Adams and Philip Glass, to name but two, would surely argue the point; that modern musical style is inimical to opera as a form, although everyone is likely to be able point to their own favourite exceptions.
Of course, even if you grant all the negatives, you’re still left with a vibrant museum culture, and nobody’s shouting to close down museums simply because what they represent is mostly old or spent.
Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, which NI Opera chose for its latest tour (ending at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast on Tuesday) is more than half a century old. It was commissioned by the Venice Biennale and premièred at the Teatro La Fenice in September 1954. It offers as good a ghost story as you’ll find in the operatic repertoire. And NI Opera’s production, directed by Oliver Mears and designed by Annemarie Woods, cleverly takes a leaf out of the techniques of Hollywood special-effects departments, and does so successfully within the constraints of a regular theatre.
Simply put, the walls move. The set, painted with a dream-like lack of sharp focus, reshapes itself from scene to scene with claustrophobic insistence, as if someone might get crushed in the reorganisation of space. The reshaping never seems quite direct. It’s as if some overseeing power is trying out possible moves before arriving at a satisfactory conclusion. The moving walls have a creepily unsettling unpredictability, just as any good ghost story ought to have.
The production’s treasure is Thomas Copeland as the boy Miles, who combines a confidence that is awe-inspiringly chilling with singing that is straight and true. And he’s matched in delivery every bit of the way by Lucia Vernon as his sister Flora.
These children have a self-absorption that’s already slightly otherworldly, even before Miles’s fatal encounter with the ghost of Peter Quint.
The two ghosts, Quint (Andrew Tortise) and Miss Jessel (Giselle Allen), both show a verbal ease and communicativeness that the Governess (Fiona Murphy) and Mrs Grose (Yvonne Howard), the two live people dealing with the children, somehow lack. It’s a matter of the marrying of words and vocal line and also of Murphy and Howard’s tendency to force their tone rather more than seemed necessary in a venue the size of the Lyric Theatre.
To be fair, they weren’t helped by the conducting of Nicholas Chalmers, who seemed to encourage his ensemble of 14 players to emulate orchestral volume rather than explore the extraordinary range of colours that Britten secured from his super-charged chamber ensemble.
The Turn of the Screw was written at a time when chamber opera seemed to be the coming thing. Ten or 15 years later, it was music theatre that was creating all the buzz, with György Ligeti’s Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures, Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King and numerous works by Mauricio Kagel mapping out an exciting new territory for which any description involving the word opera seemed to be inadequate.
The cutting edge, however, may since have sliced through the centuries, so that early opera often now brings the kind of excitement that once only the genuinely new could create. Even the Metropolitan Opera in New York, with an auditorium so large it would seem inimical to anything of baroque scale, recently revived the idea of 18th-century pastiche, with Handel, Vivaldi and Rameau among the composers roped in for The Enchanted Isle, with a scenario created by Jeremy Sams providing a platform for the likes of Plácido Domingo, Joyce di Donato and David Daniels.
There were no such luminaries for the second of Opera North’s offerings at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre (Friday 16th), when the company presented Tim Albery’s production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare, with another shape-changing set (by Leslie Travers), which was lit with apparently endless resource by Thomas C Hase.
The opera came across as a communication of potently distilled emotion, in which the contributions of Kathryn Rudge’s fervently revengeful Sesto and James Oldfield’s sympathetically solid portrayal of the basically unsympathetic Achilla made the strongest impressions.
The Arts Council’s €1 million-plus opera awards look like making a range of varied impressions, too. First out of the blocks will be Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, opening in Cork on Friday, June 22nd.
The production, directed by John O’Brien (who also conducts) and Michael Barker-Caven, is planned as a crossover venture – it will be presented by the Everyman Theatre and Cork Operatic Society in association with Cork Midsummer Festival, Cork Circus, Cork Community Arts Link and Raymond Keane/Barabbas. With upwards of 120 performers involved, both professional and amateur, it is planned that the whole theatre will become the opera, with clowns and other circus acts an integral part of the action, even before the music starts.
Wide Open Opera’s production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde will run for three nights at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre (Sunday, September 30th, Wednesday, October 3rd and Friday 6th), and joining Paul McNamara and Miriam Murphy as the doomed lovers will be Imelda Drumm as Brangäne, Manfred Hemm as King Mark, Eamonn Mulhall as the Sailor and Gavan Ring as the Steersman.
The production, originally directed and designed by Yannis Kokkos for Welsh National Opera, will be revived by Peter Watson, and Fergus Sheil will conduct an orchestra of 85. Starting times haven’t been announced yet, but expect this super-long piece to begin at 6pm or earlier.
NI Opera’s Oliver Mears production of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, which was seen in Belfast’s Grand Opera House last November, is expected at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre next November on dates yet to be finalised. It is hoped to present it again with the original cast, with Niamh Kelly and Aoife O’Sullivan as the children, Doreen Curran and Paul Carey-Jones as the parents. Last year’s performances were conducted by David Brophy.
Lyric Opera’s Vivian Coates production of Verdi’s Aida will be at the Gaiety Theatre on November 14th, 16th and 17th, with a cast headed by Yanick Muriel Noah (Aida), Michael Wade Lee (Radamès), Imelda Drumm (Amneris) and Simon Thorpe (Amonasro). The Lyric Opera Chorus and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra will be conducted by Tecwyn Evans.
The NewSoundWorlds violin and piano recital by Hugo Ticciati and Henrik Måwe (NCH Kevin Barry Room, Wednesday) was a strangely dry-sounding affair, as if the violinist hadn’t come to terms with the boxy acoustic of the venue, or was holding himself back given its small size. It was only at the end of the evening, in Lutoslawski’s partly aleatoric Partita, that the playing came fully to life.
The Prazak Quartet (St George’s Hall, Dublin Castle, Sunday) played to an almost full hall, in spite of the glorious afternoon sunshine outside. It’s not easy to outclass Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet, but the Prazak’s did it in Janacek’s Second Quartet, Intimate Letters.
The Janacek, of course, is one of music’s greatest celebrations of the passions of old age. For the last decade of his life, the unhappily married composer was consumed and inspired by his attraction to a married woman 38 years his junior, and expressed his feelings in music as well as in a copious correspondence with her.
The Intimate Letters Quartet tells all, and Janacek even explained the quartet’s second movement to his beloved: “Today I wrote in musical tones my sweetest desire. I struggle with it. It prevails. You are giving birth.” No matter that his feelings were not reciprocated.
The Prazak captured the music’s every whispered mystery, and gorged on its searing outbursts with a musical and emotional conviction that only Czech performers seem to have the knack for. Unforgettable.