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.

After further performances next weekend, the production, which has a heavy Chinese involvement, will travel to Beijing in October. The venture has received support from the KT Wong Foundation, whose founder and chairwoman, Lady Linda Wong Davies, was the person who actually suggested the use of Chinese lanterns. The lanterns and kites were created in China, and the chorus included singers from the Children and Young Women’s Chorus of the China National Symphony Orchestra, as well as children from the local Chinese community.

Further ahead, NI Opera’s Hansel and Gretel will be coming to Dublin for three nights at the Gaiety Theatre in November, the company is staging Wagner’s Fliegende Holländer at the Grand Opera House in February, and taking William Walton’s The Bear on tour in Northern Ireland in March.

The Hansel and Gretel performances received support from an Arts Council production award, and the company has also been successful in getting a second award from the Arts Council for a production of Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest in Dublin in 2013. That production, again by Mears (who also directed the German-language revival of Barry’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant in Basel in 2008), will debut in Derry, which will be the centre of the first UK City of Culture celebrations next year.

The other productions to be funded by the Arts Council next year are Berg’s Wozzeck, which Opera Theatre Company is planning to stage at Collins Barracks, and Astor Piazzolla’s María de Buenos Aires, which is to be seen at Cork Opera House.

Factor in Wexford Festival Opera’s trio of rarities, and you’ll have one of the strangest annual operatic diets this country has ever witnessed. It’s hard to know what the Arts council expects as the fallout from the absence of the kind of core repertoire that is the mainstay of opera companies around the world. Maybe it’s hoping people will simply forget the operas they used to crave, and adapt to the new reality. Or perhaps it’s just another instance of the neglect opera has suffered from for so long in this country.

Could it be that its current opera policy simply doesn’t have a view on repertoire, and is fully at ease with the prospect of such a mish-mash of productions? My own view is that the council’s handling of opera over the last few years is going to go down as one of the blackest periods in its history, not that either the council, the Minister for the Arts or his civil servants seem to care in the slightest about the destruction that has taken place.

Anyone with their ear to the ground will have heard the mutterings about the future of the council itself, which, if true, would see it cease to exist as an independent body and be subsumed into the Department of Arts. Given how atrociously that department handled opera when it was in its bailiwick, not even opera’s worst enemies would wish to see its return to the department’s direct remit.

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