The golden age of Northern Irish opera continues with NI Opera's contemporary take on Verdi's dark masterpiece
Looking round the foyer of the Grand Opera House in Belfast on a bustling Saturday evening, it’s hard to credit that a mere three years ago NI Opera was yet to mount its first home-grown production.
That was Puccini’s Tosca, in Derry~Londonderry. Tonight it’s Verdi’s Macbeth, the second in a run of three consecutive performances. Ticket sales have been the highest ever for an NI Opera staging, and there is a palpable buzz of anticipation as curtain-up approaches.
Among the cast, crew and creatives, no doubt an air of edginess and apprehension prevails, not least because on opening night acts three and four were bedevilled by cable and fuse problems in the GOH lighting infrastructure. The show went on, of course, but not exactly as it was meant to do.
Tonight it’s different. The gremlins have been vanquished, and the onstage presentation is water-tight throughout. Interestingly – because it’s ruinous to sing big operatic parts two nights – there is also a change of principals, with soprano Miriam Murphy and baritone Paul Carey Jones taking over as the Macbeths from Rachel Nicholls and Bruno Caproni, who sang the Friday evening performance.
Tralee-born Murphy, indefatigable as Isolde in Wide Open Opera’s 2012 production of Wagner’s gruesomely demanding Tristan und Isolde in Dublin, confirms the hugely positive impression she made on that occasion.
Murphy’s voice is large, powerfully focused and commanding, yet capable of finer shadings too, as she demonstrates in a compelling account of the Act Four sleepwalking scene. She rides easily over concerted choral passages, and her singing regularly produces the thrilling physical frisson so fundamental to the live operatic experience.
Murphy can act too, irresistible in manouevring her husband into the murderous intrigue of Shakespeare’s scenario, and ruthless in her goading of him when she doubts his appetite for slaughter.
Dramatically she’s fully matched by the Macbeth of Carey Jones, who sings the part with nuance and intelligence, illuminating key scenes such as the dagger monologue in Act One, and movingly beleaguered in his Act Four aria ‘Compassion, honour, love’, where he laments the loneliness and isolation of the hated tyrant.
Irish bass-baritone John Molloy struggles a little with the low-lying writing Verdi supplies for Banquo. But there is excellent support work from Derry~Londonderry’s Doreen Curran as a trepidatious Lady in Waiting, Andrew Ree’s anguished Macduff, and the incisive, anxious Doctor of Nathan Morrison, a past pupil of Methodist College, Belfast.
If it’s fair to speak of stars in a company that majors on a strong corporate ethos of togetherness and teamwork, then the stars of this particular production would be the chorus. They have a lot of work to do in Macbeth, and do it brilliantly.
It’s worth noting that NI Opera’s chorus is not a permanent fixture, as it is in many opera companies. Rather it’s engaged on short-term contracts, from production to production, which makes it much more difficult to develop esprit de corps, collective experience, and a distinctive vocal identity.
With this particular group of 40 singers – most of them Irish in origin – it doesn’t seem to matter. They are outstanding from start to finish, moving confidently around the stage area, and producing singing that ranges from ravishing in ‘Down-trodden country’, the great Act Four chorus of lamentation, to viscerally thrilling, as they apostrophise the open coffin of the assassinated Duncan at Act One’s conclusion.
The women of the chorus have special demands placed on them, when to the music of the Witches’ scenes is added the choreography of Anna Morrissey. Again they cope splendidly, one of them even managing to toe-punt a detached doll’s head which has gone roll-about on stage into the wings, with an accuracy that would have impressed Sir Alex Ferguson.
Great credit is due to Nicholas Chalmers, who trained the chorus. He also conducts the Ulster Orchestra, whose lean textures and dark colorations graphically re-create the particular tinta Verdi had in mind for this grimly cut-throat opera.
Oliver Mears’s direction, as ever, prioritises clarity of narrative and the eschewal of overblown operatic rhetoric, both in the singing and acting. His view of the opera emphasises its heart of darkness, and the Machiavellian cruelty that fuels the action.
That’s as it should be, and Mears' conception is reinforced by the versatile set designs of Omagh native Annemarie Woods, which efficiently transmute from drab domestic reception room to dining hall, to witches’ cave, and eventually to the Scottish border.
Woods’ costuming updates the action to the modern period, and there is no escaping the contemporary militaristic resonances of Mears’s interpretation, in a week where dozens have been killed in Ukraine’s political upheaval, and the situation in Syria continues to claim thousands of victims.
Some opera-goers bemoan this kind of historical updating, but there is no denying the edge and relevance that it can give, in a medium too often criticised for serving up museum-piece productions for the delectation of connoisseurs only.
NI Opera is, in any case, not the type of company to play it safe or court irrelevance. Already in its short history, and on a budget many other companies would regard as bean-money, it has put on major operas by Puccini, Britten, Humperdinck, Wagner and Donizetti, and staged a triumphant world premiere by Gerald Barry.
Next year it presses ambitiously forward with a new staging of Richard Strauss’s erotically charged Salome, with Belfast-born soprano Giselle Allen – one of the finest singing actresses of her generation – in the title part. What a prospect that is, and what a golden period opera in Northern Ireland is currently experiencing, unarguably the most exciting and enterprising in the country's history.
Visit the Grand Opera House website for information on forthcoming opera productions and more.