Opera / CASTLEWARD OPERA Northern Ireland

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The Independent Culture
Castleward Opera, like Glyndebourne, owes its existence to personal enthusiasm - that of two local singers, Jack Smith and Ian Urwin. In 1982, Urwin was taking part in a concert in the then still dilapidated coach house of this 18th-century mansion near Belfast, and saw its possibilities as a summer venue for opera. After energetic fund-raising, the first season took place in 1985, using semi-professionals, amateurs, and anyone else willing to lend a hand for free.

Since then, Castleward has gone steadily uphill, and today dares to invite the international press for its traditional programme of one light opera and one more serious work. As at Glyndebourne, there is a long interval, during which one can picnic in the spacious grounds and enjoy the fine view over Strangford Lough, or book a meal in the beautifully decorated marquee next to the coach house.

The programme this year offers Chabrier's operetta L'Etoile and Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi, using professional singers, directors and designers. The Chabrier, using Jeremy Sams's excellent translation, is styled like a seaside show, with clownlike costumes and over-the-top acting. This improbable tale of the triumph of true love between a poor young pedlar and a princess is played out with engaging panache. But it was in the Bellini (sung in Italian) that I saw just how far Castleward has come. First, they are blessed with two superb young singers: Nicola Sharkey as Giulietta and Helen Lothian as Romeo. I saw Sharkey there in 1993, as an impressive Lucia; two years on, and there is now an added confidence in her acting. Lothian, too, has an assured stage presence and a glorious voice; there is a rare power in the lower register.

The director, Nicolette Molnar, took a daring leap in transposing the story from Verona to Belfast. In the first scene, we see metal fencing at the rear topped by barbed wire. Some of the chorus are in RUC-style riot gear. But it was the performance of the two lovers that gave the transposition such impact. Giulietta, in this version being forced to marry Tybalt, is alone, and already in her wedding dress. During a long aria ("O quante volte") she slowly sinks behind an Irish harp, clutching its sides; we see her face through the strings as if through prison bars. The following duet between the two lovers sustains the tension.

Other performances - Christopher Blades as Juliet's father, Mark Milhofer as Tybalt, Julian Tovey as Lorenzo - were also of high standard. With future funding assured, Castleward Opera can only continue to go upward - deservedly.

n In repertory until 1 July (Box-office: 01232 661090)

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