Opera, Literature and Lunch

Out to Lunch continue to brighten the dark days of January with a no frills fix of book-based works from NI Opera's fabulous young artists

Pictured: Soprano Gabrielle Mulcahy and mezzo-soprano Laura McFall

Another year and another Out to Lunch Festival and once again the Black Box is jam-packed with lovers of the lively arts. Who are these people, where do they come from and what do they do for the rest of the year? Or at least until Culture Night. Is the allure of a free Hadski’s lunch really that strong?

They certainly have descended on the trestle-table comestibles like a pack of jackals! There’s none left by the time I arrive leaving me, once again, a poor and starving artist.

Today’s show from Northern Ireland Opera’s Young Artists programme is called, with commendable directness, 'Opera, Literature and Lunch'. There’s no mucking about with puns or wordplay here, the four singers troop onto the stage, either alone or in pairs, give us a brief précis and then give us excerpts from a series of operas of a literary bent.

Indeed a tiny bit of showbiz pizzazz wouldn’t go amiss: the spoken introductions to each of the pieces are a little understated. That doesn’t matter, of course, once the singing starts and tenor David Lynn sets out his stall magnificently with 'La fleur que tu m’avais jetee' from Bizet’s Carmen, itself based upon the novella by Prosper Mérimée.

Lynn has a strong, rich voice with a bell-like clarity, and sets himself four-square against the crowd, in a heroic stance. He looks as though he could take us all on! The lyrics describe how Don Jose has kept faith with the capricious Carmen, keeping the flower that she had thrown him even while he languished in a prison cell.

She’s having none of it however and the story doesn’t pan out well for anything. There is foreshadowing here in Lynn’s voice: even as he pledges his love it is doomed.

Rebecca Rodgers introduces the second piece with an apology – though billed to sing 'Ebben! Ne andro lontana' from Catalani’s La Wally, she is unable to do so as she is suffering from a throat infection. There is scant evidence of this, luckily, as she launches – it’s the only word, and with gusto – into Massenet’s 'Il est doux, il est bon' from Herodiade, based on the novel Herodias by Flaubert.

It is the story of John the Baptist (Jean, here) and Rodgers plays Salome, mooning after the 'soft' saint. Rodgers is enormously expressive, with a tremendous theatrical style. She delivers the song beautifully, imploring to the audience, pleading with them.

Opera For Lunch

The Barcarolle, 'Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour' is up next and it is glorious. It helps that, given it is Offenbach, it’s the first piece I actually know, and from the first book I have actually read from the literary options on offer. The text is Hoffmann’s Tales of Hoffmann, specifically 'Das Verlorene Spiegelbild' or 'The Lost Reflection'.

It is the story of the hapless Hoffmann falling for the courtesan Giulietta. He believes that she returns his love but she does not: she is in the pay of the dastardly Captain Dappertutto who has promised her a diamond in return for, er, stealing Hoffmann’s reflection from a mirror, which is something of a dying art these days.

There is a sensual, shimmering quality to the music, mimicking the lapping of a gondolier’s stroke, and the voices of Rebecca Rodgers and mezzo-soprano Laura McFall blend beautifully. As the notes die you can hear a collective sigh rising up from the audience.

Moments of high drama continue throughout the faultless set, though I suspect that Jonathan Dove’s The Enchanted Pig is the 'breakaway pop hit'. Rodgers' 'It’s My Wedding', introduced as 'The Bridezilla Aria', is witty and charming, starting as it does with a shrieked 'Tiara, Tiara, do you call this a tiara?' and containing the deathless line 'get out and hustle some midgets with muscle'.

The hustling is happening on stage, however, as Rodgers gets each of us to buy into the performance with a huckster’s ease: she is a foot-stomping Veruca Salt with her own BBC Three series!

We end with truly high drama: 'O Soave Fanciulla' ('O Lovely Girl') from La Boheme. Romance is drifting off the stage like plumes of dry ice. The song comes at exactly the point Rodolfo and Mimi, a pair of Bohemian types, realise that they have fallen in love.

Tenor Lynn and soprano Gabrielle Mulcahy acquit themselves with aplomb here and there is even something akin to staging, as Rodolfo serenades the seated Mimi. At the end they step down from the stage, arm in arm, singing beautifully and bound for the Café Momus (in reality Hill Street).

This is a fabulous lunchtime operatic injection for the always discerning crowd at Out to Lunch and no doubt whets the appetites of more than a few audience members for Northern Ireland Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw at the Lyric in March.

And kudos, once again, to Sean Kelly’s Out to Lunch festival: he has the rare power of drawing people from their warm homes or offices and out into the miserable January weather for a quick, cultural fix. And long may he continue to do so.

Out to Lunch continues at the Black Box and other venues in Belfast until January 31. For more information and ticket booking visit www.cqaf.com/outtolunch/2016. For the latest on NI Opera's current season visit www.niopera.com.