Carlisle Memorial Church, Belfast
The audience was sparse for Puccini’s La bohème on Saturday night, but without reservations. Far from there. It was a sold-out sale, but thanks to social distancing, only around 90 people were able to attend.
Bohemian Paris had come to Carlisle Memorial Church in north Belfast with an accordionist serenading masked members of the public as they arrived. The site-specific production of the Northern Ireland Opera by its new artistic director Cameron Menzies is the company’s first live production after 19 months of Covid restrictions. Relief all around.
The dilapidated and stripped-down interior of the old church has been cleverly integrated into the decor by Claire Morrissey and enhanced by mood lighting by Kevin Treacy. 1920s decor was confirmed by Diana Ennis’ costume designs.
The slightly tilted public seats allowed for an unobstructed view of the small elevated “stage” framed by the large Gothic arch at the eastern end of the church. The left and right were extremely narrow walkways stretching out towards the audience, then linked together by another walkway to create a square – effectively enclosing an orchestra pit. In this lower level space were the ropes. To the left of the camera, beyond the catwalk, there were antlers and a harp; similarly, camera on the right, were the brass and percussion.
Conductor Rebecca Lang produced a well-paced and never too sentimental reading of the orchestra of about 30 musicians using a reduced orchestration by Gerardo Colella.
The production made creative use of the three podiums, with singers often positioned to achieve a revealing depth of perspective – even when a “hold and deliver” approach was considered best.
Cameron Menzies wanted “the energy of youth” and the energy was plentiful everywhere. Despite Covid’s need for a reduced choir size, the Act 2 hustle and bustle of kids, toy sellers and flower vendors was a big hit, thanks to choreographer Jennifer Rooney and her dancers. Two Pierrots were a notable addition, reappearing to help with the well-lit snowfall in Act 3.
The singers made a good overall team. Perhaps it was the resonant acoustics, but also the placement of the orchestra, which encouraged Rodolfo, American tenor Noah Stewart, to force his tone at times, disrupting the flow of the vocal line. Her other half, so to speak, Gemma Summerfield’s Mimi, delivered an utterly compelling and very moving performance, from the best flats without effort to beautiful moments of calm.
Belfast-born Emma Morwood as Musetta was excellent too, conveying a wide range of moods with vocal clarity and dramatic conviction. His admirer Marcello, Ukrainian baritone Yuriy Yurchuk, is certainly another voice to watch, as is Aaron O’Hare who sang the part of Schaunard.
The two basses were also still good, Edmund Danon as Hill (his lament for a condom in Act 4 was particularly memorable) and Graeme Danby as Benedict and Alcindoro.
Without a doubt, a rewarding evening at the opera.
Also on Monday (20th), Thursday (23e) and Saturday (25e)