NI Opera Shorts

NI Opera takes a major gamble with 5 debut works, but it – mostly – pays off at the MAC

It's an evening of firsts. The first night of NI Opera's 2012-13 season, first time the MAC has hosted opera and the first time the five new operas featured have been performed in public.

Did I say five? I did, and that's because these works are mini-operas, Opera Shorts in NI Opera parlance. Averaging 15 minutes each, they share a single set designed by Garry McCann. It's a deliberately drab, semi-dilapidated backdrop and suits some of the operas better than others.

Below, at floor level, players from the Ulster Orchestra slot in, triangle-style, between stage and stalls. They're incisively conducted by Fergus Sheil, and make a punchy contribution to the impact of the evening.

All five composers are from Northern Ireland, and four of them set their opera locally. The exception is Christopher Norby, whose The Girl Who Knew She Could Fly takes the true story of a young student who committed suicide by jumping off a motorway bridge in Dublin as its starting-point.

It's a grim scenario, but Norby has set it to music of keening lyricism. Frank McGuinness's libretto focuses mainly on the grieving parents , with the other-worldly, offstage comments in the voice of their dead daughter (Gemma Prince). 

Wedged in what looks like a window-frame mezzo Doreen Curran and baritone Paul Carey Jones sing the parts of the grieving parents. Their lack of movement is presumably intended to emphasise the pair's entrapment in the rituals of mourning and melancholia. Dramatically, unfortunately, the effect is dangerously static and claustrophobic, making deeper engagement with the audience difficult.

Lack of movement certainly isn't a problem in Ed Bennett's Jackie's Taxi. The four jump-suited 'hoods' striking exaggerated Broadway poses to Bennett's jazzily syncopated back-track provide plenty of visual interest.

Driver Jackie (Doreen Curran again) is, by contrast, a still centre of attention. A Lotte Lenya of the Lagan, she stalks the stage confidingly, mischievously anatomising the shabby actualities underlying the spin-doctored image of the post-conflict city.

With Deirdre McKay's Driven, we're back in claustrophobic territory. Blair Mayne, British war-hero and inveterate fast liver, is speeding towards his death (aged forty) in a Newtownards traffic accident. We catch snippets of his life in flashback as he approaches the fatal collision.

Unrelenting motor-rhythms fuelled by cellos symbolise the fire within which keeps Mayne in perpetual motion. Tenor Eamonn Mulhall brings an appropriate intensity to his portrayal of this Lawrence of the Ards Peninsula.

Another soldier features, this time dying in the 'Troubles', in Conor Mitchell's Our Day. It's a befuddling experience. Mitchell writes in the programme about the becalming effect Mary Peters' gold medal at the 1972 Olympics had on her native Northern Ireland. It occasioned a totally violence-free day at the height of the sectarian conflict.

What we see, however, is a British squaddie slowly dying, and a mother desperately trying to comfort him. Her daughter, looking on, eventually sticks the barrel of a rifle down her throat, and blows her brains to pieces. She's replaced onstage by a skeleton.

A 'special day in 1972', as Conor Mitchell puts it? I have trouble making the connection. Mary Peters herself was in the audience. I wonder what the great Olympian made of how 'her day' was presented?

May Contain Flash Photography is, by contrast, uncomplicatedly triumphant. Playwright Owen McCafferty's tight, piercingly funny libretto was obviously a joy to set for the prodigally inventive Brian Irvine. His score fizzes with energy and sharp instrumentation, illustrating the preposterous illusions harboured by a couch-potato family hanging its hopes on a fat win in the National Lottery.

There's poignancy too, as an old man (an expressive Alex Connolly) interrupts the frantic fantasising with some corrective musings on life's more enduringly important values. Paul Carey Jones excelled again as the father, his firm projection and limpid diction particularly impressing.

Eamonn Mulhall, no doubt unwinding from his emotionally taxing stint as the dying soldiers, camps it up hilariously as the TV compere crunching numbers for the Lottery company. Ryan Tubridy (whom Mulhall passingly resembles), eat you heart out.

It's a major gamble kicking off an operatic season with this sort of venture – untried work in an untried venue, playing to an audience which itself needs to be pioneering in its curiosity, not simply passive absorbers of yet another Madama Butterfly or La Traviata re-hash.

Both audience (large and appreciative) and company emerge with flying colours from this bold initiative, in which NI Opera's artistic director Oliver Mears threw down the gauntlet to local composers and performers, challenging them to show what they are truly made of. In NI Opera Shorts, they undoubtedly stepped up to the plate impressively.

Opera Shorts will have a second performance in London at the Southbank Centre on July 13