As the streets cleared and Belfast returned to normal after the King’s visit on Tuesday, some who had sung at the memorial service in St Anne’s Cathedral had other pressing duties: a performance of Verdi’s La Traviata at the city’s Grand Opera House, the second night of a new production by Cameron Menzies, conducted by Rebecca Lang, with the Ulster Orchestra in the pit. Northern Ireland Opera had loaned members of its chorus to boost numbers (alongside Belfast’s Priory Singers) for the royal ceremony, the cathedral having sacked its own excellent choir and music director, in a cloistral blunder worthy of Trollope, just weeks ago.
Luckily this is a region rich in vocal talent. The locally based NI Opera chorus is, post-Covid, new, recruited through open auditions earlier this year yet already able to produce the vital, full-bodied sound needed for Verdi’s beloved work. The first opera to be produced in Frank Matcham’s magnificent 1895 theatre since it reopened last year after a £12m restoration, this Traviata was deftly cast, impressively sung, perceptively conceived and direct in impact, no mean feat. Lang kept the pace swift but never lost touch with the music’s heartbeat pulse. The orchestra was responsive and agile.
Making his role debut as Alfredo, the American tenor Noah Stewart is a stage natural, able to convey every painful gradation of emotion, from sorrow to anger, with minimal gesture, ringing top notes and a lower register glinting with baritone inflections. In her first Violetta, Siobhan Stagg has a lightness of voice, sinewy and focused in the coloratura, every note hitting the gleaming centre, without strain or error. This Australian soprano based in Germany may have to act frail and consumptive, but she is resilient and musically indestructible.
The Ukrainian baritone Yuriy Yurchuk was affecting as Giorgio Germont, stiff, cold, broken, but his voice warm and reverberant. You may recognise the name. He made news earlier this year when he sang his homeland’s national anthem at the gates of Downing Street. Ellen Mawhinney, who recently won NI Opera’s young opera voice of the year award, brought character to the cameo role of Annina. So too, drawing on the wisdom of a four-decade career, did Graham Danby as the doctor.
Under a traditional guise, the designs had sharp modern detail, with couture gowns by Linda Britten for Violetta and Flora (Margaret Bridge) and an elegant salon set by Niall McKeever. The circular geometric floor pattern drew the eye in, the limited black, white and red palette cleverly chiming with the theatre’s freshly renewed tones of scarlet and gold. Suspended overhead were ominous, Rodinesque sculptures, apocalyptic and winged. Stage movement was sure-footed and detailed. The Spanish choreographer Isabel Baquero directed a strong, flamenco-inspired dance in the second-act ball.
This high-quality staging is the more remarkable when you learn about NI Opera. The Australian Menzies joined as artistic director and CEO in 2020. His imaginative ambitions may help the company in this key phase of development, but funding is perilous. Currently, only one main production a year is feasible. The company’s annual grant of £650,000 from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland has been at a standstill since 2013, not helped by the hiatus at Stormont. In addition, Northern Ireland has the lowest arts spending per capita in the UK (£5.31 compared with £10.03 in Wales).
This Traviata was sold out completely for its short run, the ovation on Tuesday near deafening. To combine local talent with international stars is a bonus for all. Those visitors are rewarded in return, not always in ways they expected. “Just saw the new King of The United Kingdom, King Charles III. Kinda cool! Wow!” Stewart tweeted, nodding to the historic moment, whichever way you view it.
The day after the Queen’s death, the Royal Opera boldly went ahead, with the now customary moral health warnings at the door, with Richard Strauss’s Salome (1905), an opera suppurating with regal corruption, nubile sexuality and messianic decree. David McVicar’s 2008 staging, conducted by Alexander Soddy making his ROH debut, was graced with a fine cast, though the performance never quite caught fire. The Swedish soprano Malin Byström was back in the title role, which she sang in 2018, with Katarina Dalayman as her mother, Herodias, both fresh from their triumphant concert performance in Edinburgh.
Dressed as a 1940s Hollywood starlet, Byström stares, unblinking, statuesque. Her voice has some unevenness, but the performance is affecting, perverse and, as it should be, fearlessly repellent. Dalayman, physically and vocally imposing, matches her stage daughter’s gorgon stare, managing to convey the many unspoken conflicts in the role: anger and revulsion, horror and maternal pride. John Daszak as the snivelling Herod, Jordan Shanahan as the prophet Jokanaan and Thomas Atkins as lovesick Narraboth led the ensemble cast.
At the final Bold Tendencies event of the season, 20-year-old Jeneba Kanneh-Mason played Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2 with the Philharmonia, conducted by the German-based American Roderick Cox. The orchestra’s attack and clarity, in partnership with the soloist’s poetry and confidence, revealed new contours in that familiar work. As Jeneba’s cellist brother Sheku told the Observer a fortnight ago, the family had planned to split, half going to the Albert Hall to support him at the Last Night of the Proms, the other half to south London to support her. Instead, with the Proms cancelled, the whole family of musicians was there, visibly holding their collective breath as their brilliant sister played, and leading the cheers when the last chords sounded.
Star ratings (out of five)
La Traviata ★★★★★
Jeneba Kanneh-Mason ★★★★
Salome is at the Royal Opera House, London, until 1 October