Two of Ireland’s younger sopranos would be a casting director’s dream

If only Ireland had such a thing as a national opera company to utilise the abilities of Anna Devin and Jennifer Davis

Life is full of near misses, not least when it comes to casting in movies and television. Bing Crosby was the original choice to play the shabby, apparently bumbling TV detective Columbo, a character now inseparable from the late Peter Falk. Leonardo di Caprio and Sandra Bullock both auditioned for Baywatch. John Lithgow, who played the fluttering alien Dick Solomon in Third Rock from the Sun, was the original choice for Frasier Crane, the character Kelsey Grammer went on to make famous in Cheers and later in Frasier.

Given that actors can mould characters in any number of ways, it’s not impossible to imagine a world in which Crosby gave up a bit of his golf and became synonymous with sleuthing on TV (not sacrificing the golf was apparently his reason for turning down the part).

The point is that casting is an activity in which you want to have a choice. And that's even more important in opera, where, most of the time, roles are not created with the freedom that scriptwriters have to adapt to the quirks of the actor they're writing for. In opera it's usually about recreation. Certain opera directors may fancy otherwise, but there are probably places that most people don't want to see Carmen, Rigoletto, Figaro or Eugene Onegin being taken.

Opera being what it is, you can in a sense have it both ways, with the composer’s vision being asserted through the singing and the music, and the director’s through what is seen on stage. Or you can just be selective. I have a friend who sometimes tells me about opera productions he has enjoyed, and then adds a qualifier about having had to keep his eyes closed in order to shut out what he regarded as annoying visuals.


What got me thinking about casting was the opportunity to sample the singing of two Irish sopranos of the younger generation just a few days apart: Anna Devin in the Dublin Song Series at the Hugh Lane Gallery, and Jennifer Davis giving this year's Bernadette Greevy Bursary Recital at the National Concert Hall's John Field Room just two days later.

They’re both young enough to have an interest in the musical equivalent of revving up the engine and burning some rubber at the lights to show off a car’s acceleration. In other words, they were not beyond souping up some of the music to show off the volume and force they are capable of. And when they set out to impress in this way, they achieved their goal.

They have both developed the kind of healthy, strong delivery that singers need to project in larger halls and opera houses. In appearance and bearing, Devin came across as the cooler character, the kind you could easily imagine carrying off the reserve of an aristocratic role. And she also showed, in moments of reflection, an ability to convey an enriching vulnerability. Davis seemed more immediately engaging, open-hearted and personal in a way that was easy to identify with.

If Ireland had such a thing as a national opera company, its casting director would be delighted to have two young singers, so able and so contrasted, to call on. If only.

A programme of two halves 

Accomplished singing is something that could also be taken for granted

at the National Concert Hall on Thursday, when the Tallis Scholars and their conductor, Peter Phillips, presented a programme of two very distinct halves. Renaissance works by Byrd, Josquin and Gombert came before the interval, followed by music from the last 70 years by Michael Tippett, John Tavener, Arvo Pärt and Eric Whitacre.

The Tallis Scholars are a group that have set standards for excellence in choral singing. They lay everything out in perfect perspective, words as well as vocal lines. Their sound is not just clearly sculpted, but also very beautiful. On Thursday I found them a little distanced, a little too formal in the first half, which was perhaps partly a matter of atmosphere and acoustic. The National Concert Hall can’t compete on either of those fronts with historic churches when it comes to unaccompanied choral singing.

The choir's reputation is built on their achievements in early music. But this concert showed that they are every bit as adept at music that's closer to and fully of our own time. Their relationship with the late John Tavener goes back to the 1980s: they gave the premiere of his Funeral Ikos in 1981. Eric Whitacre's Sainte-Chapelle was written for the choir's 40th anniversary and premiered by them at St Paul's Cathedral in London last year.

Whitacre is one of the world's leading choral couturiers, one of a very disparate band of composers whose connection is that they know how to write music that flatters choral voices and is gratifying to sing. The Tallis Scholars made Saint-Chapelle the king of ear-seducing experience it was intended to be. And they were every bit as engaging in the hypnotic worlds of Tavener and Pärt.

Camerata Ireland’s return

Sunday afternoon brought a return to the National Concert Hall by Barry Douglas's Camerata Ireland, with a programme that was unashamedly populist. Grieg's Holberg Suite is an evergreen late-19th-century revisiting of the baroque. Mozart's Piano Concerto in E flat, K449, is one of those composer's works identified as performable with strings only, and Douglas himself was a suave soloist in it. The rapidly rising young violinist Mairéad Hickey was the soloist in the Romance from Shostakovich's score for the film The Gadfly. And Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings was the crowd- pleasing conclusion.

Camerata Ireland tours internationally and carries the flag for Ireland, buoyed up by Douglas’s formidable standing as an internationally renowned virtuoso. But as a conductor, he’s an energetic if not always imaginative orchestral driver, and his orchestra is very much a movable feast.

The playing on Sunday was on the rough side, utilitarian rather than sophisticated, not really tidy in detail the way you would normally be able to take for granted with, say, the Irish Chamber Orchestra.

The roughness was enough to leave me wondering why it is that the National Concert Hall repeatedly promotes concerts by Camerata Ireland (this latest was an odd intrusion of an orchestra into the current Chamber Music series), while that national venue seems unwilling to embrace the Irish Chamber Orchestra, whose performing standards are consistently higher. Think of it this way: it’s not a problem, it’s an opportunity.