As the streets cleared and Belfast returned to normal following the King’s visit on Tuesday, some who had sung at the memorial service in St Anne’s Cathedral had other urgent tasks: a performance by Verdi. The Traviata at the city’s Grand Opera House, the second evening of a new production by Cameron Menzies, conducted by Rebecca Lang, with the Ulster Orchestra in the pits. The Northern Irish Opera had lent members of its choir to boost numbers (along with the Priory Singers of Belfast) for the royal ceremony, as the cathedral had sacked its excellent choir and musical director, in a cloistral mistake worthy of Trollope, a few weeks ago.
Thankfully this is a region full of vocal talent. The NI Opera’s local choir is, post-Covid, new, recruited through auditions opened earlier this year but already capable of producing the vital, full-bodied sound needed for Verdi’s beloved work. The first opera to be produced in Frank Matcham’s magnificent theater in 1895 since it reopened last year after a £ 12 million restoration, this Traviata it was cleverly chosen, sung in an impressive way, conceived in a perceptive way and direct in impact, a no small feat. Lang kept the pace fast but never lost touch with the heartbeat of the music. The orchestra was responsive and agile.
Debuting in the role of Alfredo, American tenor Noah Stewart is a natural stage, capable of conveying every painful gradation of emotion, from pain to anger, with minimal gestures, blaring top notes and a shimmering low register of baritone inflections. In his first Violetta, Siobhan Stagg has a light, nervous and concentrated voice in coloratura, each note hitting the sparkling center, without effort or error. This German-based Australian soprano may have to act fragile and consumptive, but he is resilient and musically indestructible.
Funding from NI Opera is dangerous. Currently only one main production per year is possible
Ukrainian baritone Yuriy Yurchuk was as moving as Giorgio Germont, stiff, cold, broken, but his voice warm and reverberating. You might recognize the name. He made headlines earlier this year when he sang the national anthem of his homeland at the gates of Downing Street. Ellen Mawhinney, who recently won NI Opera’s Young Opera Voice of the Year award, starred in the cameo role of Annina. Likewise, drawing on the wisdom of a four-decade career, Graham Danby has been a doctor.
Under a traditional look, the models had crisp, modern details, with couture dresses by Linda Britten for Violetta and Flora (Margaret Bridge) and an elegant salon set by Niall McKeever. The circular geometric pattern of the floor attracted attention, the limited palette of black, white and red that skilfully played with the scarlet and gold tones of the newly renovated theater. Suspended above were sinister Rodinesque, apocalyptic and winged sculptures. The movement of the stage was confident and detailed. Spanish choreographer Isabel Baquero conducted a strong flamenco-inspired dance in the second act dance.
This high-quality staging is all the more remarkable when you get to know NI Opera. Australian Menzies joined as art director and CEO in 2020. His imaginative ambitions can help the company at this key stage of development, but funding is dangerous. Currently only one main production per year is possible. The company’s annual grant of £ 650,000 from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland has stood still since 2013, not helped by the break at Stormont. Additionally, Northern Ireland has the lowest per capita spending on the arts in the UK (£ 5.31 compared to £ 10.03 in Wales).
This Traviata he was completely exhausted for his short stint, Tuesday’s almost deafening ovation. Combining local talent with international stars is a bonus for everyone. Those visitors are rewarded in return, not always in the expected way. “I just saw the new king of the United Kingdom, King Charles III. How wonderful! Oh!” Stewart tweetedhinting at the historical moment, however you look at it.
The day after the Queen’s death, the Royal Opera moved on boldly, with the now customary moral health warnings on the doorstep, with Richard Strauss’s film. Salome (1905), a suppurating work of royal corruption, unmarried sexuality and messianic decree. David McVicar’s 2008 staging, directed by Alexander Soddy on his ROH debut, featured an excellent cast, although the performance never caught fire. Swedish soprano Malin Byström is back in the lead role, which she sang in 2018, with Katarina Dalayman as her mother, Herodias, both fresh from their triumphant concert performance in Edinburgh.
Dressed like a 1940s Hollywood starlet, Byström stares, impassive, statuesque. Her voice has some irregularities, but her performance is poignant, perverse and, as it should be, fearlessly repulsive. Dalayman, physically and vocally imposing, matches the gorgon’s gaze of the stage daughter, managing to convey the many unspoken conflicts in her role: anger and revulsion, horror and maternal pride. John Daszak as the crybaby Herod, Jordan Shanahan as the Prophet Jokanaan, and Thomas Atkins as the lovesick Narraboth led the ensemble’s cast.
At the last Bold Tendencies event of the season, 20 years Jeneba Kanneh-Mason played the Piano Concerto no. 2 by Rachmaninov with the Philharmonia, directed by the American Roderick Cox, resident in Germany. The attack and clarity of the orchestra, in conjunction with the poetry and confidence of the soloist, revealed new contours in that familiar work. As Jeneba’s cellist brother Sheku said Observer A fortnight ago, the family had planned to split up, half going to Albert Hall to support him on the last night of the balls, the other half to South London to support him. Instead, with the cancellation of the Proms, the entire family of musicians were there, visibly holding their collective breath as their brilliant sister played and leading the cheers as the final chords played.
Star ratings (out of five)
The Traviata ★★★★★
Jeneba Kanneh-Mason ★★★★
Salome is at the Royal Opera House in London until 1 October