NI Opera Young Artists

Four Northern Irish soloists thrive in the intimate surroundings of the Black Box

It's Tuesday lunchtime, and the Black Box in Belfast is packed to capacity for the first-ever operatic concert to be hosted at the venue, and the only classical event at this year's Out To Lunch festival.

Black Box is an unusual venue for opera, with its low-lit night-club atmosphere, informal seating lay-out, and an audience snacking contentedly on the bread rolls and casserole included in the price of entry. Try doing that in the dress circle at La Scala or Covent Garden.

It turns out, however, to be an inspired setting for the four soloists from Northern Ireland Opera's Young Artists' Programme. Operatic voices mature slowly, and need careful presentation while they're still growing.

Black Box's physical intimacy allows all four soloists to project clearly without straining their still developing voices, and encourages a freer rapport with the audience than might be possible across an orchestra pit, or from a conventional recital platform.

Rostrevor baritone Páidí Ó Dubháin, currently a student at the Guildhall in London, is first on stage. He's a natural showman, semaphoring a blithely sung account of 'Non più andrai' from Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro with a droll succession of manual and facial gestures.

For 'Deh, vieni alla finestra', from the same composer's Don Giovanni, Ó Dubháin quits the platform altogether, deftly weaving his way through the diners, and playfully choreographing the arch-seducer's perennial search for fresh female conquests.

It's a finely sung account, the voice evidently well schooled technically, with seamless progression through the registers and excellent diction.

Ó Dubháin's still at it (playing the gigolo, that is) when the programme closes with all four singers joining in Richard Rodgers' 'Some Enchanted Evening'. With three contending sopranos on his case by this stage, however, a wry smile is all Ó Dubháin can ultimately manage, which in the circumstances is probably the wisest policy.

The female soloists are interestingly varied. Mary McCabe's is the lightest of the three voices, bringing a limpid tone quality to 'Song to the Moon' from Dvorak's Rusalka, and a playful, soubrettish quality to 'The Laughing Song' from Johann Strauss's operetta Die Fledermaus.

Dungannon's Gemma Prince mines operetta too, for the gorgeous 'Vilja Song' from Lehár's The Merry Widow. Hers is a bigger voice, with distinct mezzo colorations. She nails the climactic top notes confidently, at a speed perhaps marginally too slow for comfort.

Soprano three, Marcella Walsh, brings more Merry Widow to the table, duetting with Ó Dubháin on the famous 'Waltz Song'. Walsh is the most experienced of the four singers, evincing a telling interpretive maturity in 'How Beautiful It Is' from Britten's The Turn of the Screw, an intriguing taster for NI Opera's new production of the opera in March. Pianist Gail Evans accompanies beautifully, as she does in all the items.

As an experiment in bringing opera to Black Box, this hour-long recital is completely successful, and should certainly be repeated on a regular basis.

In a week that saw NI Opera receive an Irish Times Theatre Award nomination for last year's site-specific staging of Puccini's Tosca, it also clearly demonstrates the new company's admirable determination to identify talented singers from the region, and give them the type of performance opportunities they need to become the operatic stars of the future.

Out To Lunch continues until January 29.