Grand Opera House, Belfast
Opera Northern Ireland's new-season production of was rich in promise of things new. Not only was this the first time the opera had been staged in Ireland, it was the occasion of a radical departure from tradition in the use of a non in-house chorus, in this case, the slender, but well focused choir of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. Any production of has to be a special event; of all the great Mozart operas, this is the one that has waited longest to enter the repertoire and still, to an extent, needs the most special pleading. In the wrong hands it can seem weak on motivation, artificial in the development of the plot and wooden in delivery.
The overture was promising and, throughout, the orchestra played with a real feeling for style. When things worked, as in most of Ilia's arias, sung with genuine commitment by Louise Walsh, there was a real sense of contact between pit and stage that allowed the true drama of this remarkable opera to emerge. Most of the rest of the time, the production seemed so devoid of imagination, the interaction between characters so formulaic, that most sceptics would have had their worst fears about the piece confirmed. In his note about the work, the director, Harry Silverstein, spoke about "a maelstrom of relationships"; true enough, but the result on stage had little sense of passion or involvement. Nearly every confrontation passed as if nothing at all had happened, and the audience was left to pick its way unaided through a series of attractive but wholly uninvolving tableaux. Scenes of passion, doubt and torment went by without remark, sacrificed to a "noli me tangere" approach in which the performers seemed locked in plaster; gesture appeared to have almost no role outside the muted and stylised gyrations of the chorus and dancers. Far from contributing to the drama, the chorus, bereft of any real sense of urgency where it mattered, seemed little more than an ornament to hang on the substantial and often poorly lit set. Something must be wrong when the attention constantly drifted towards the magnificently expressive activities of the signer, Wendy Ebsworth - easily the most compelling presence on the stage.
The production's lack of engagement with the drama unfortunately fed into many of the musical aspects of the performance. Apart from Louise Walsh's outstanding Ilia, much of the rest of the cast was underpowered. Despite some fine, ringing tone, Emma Selway's Idamante was robbed of reality by the sheer gawkiness imposed on her stage presence. Even Virginia Kerr's Elettra, a gift of a role for which she was well equipped, seemed barely to raise any electricity. The Caius College choir when singing together produced splendidly clear lines; when separated out into individual strands the choristers sounded a touch undernourished. All in all, this was a disappointing occasion and a pity that so much evident talent and effort had been poured into a production that barely scratched the surface of one of the 18th-century's most profound studies of love and power.