Irish National Opera’s first season of 2022 is a touring production of the baroque opera 'Bajazet' by Antonio Vivaldi, a co-production with Royal Opera House (UK), with the Irish Baroque Orchestra conducted by Peter Whelan. Originally a story set in 15th-century Turkey, the opera depicts a world in turmoil and an empire in ruins, forming the backdrop to a drama of love, deception, and betrayal, with a diverse musical setting that draws on material by Vivaldi and some of his greatest contemporaries. Director Adele Thomas, who has produced operas for Northern Ireland Opera, Royal Opera House, and Zurich Opera, is working with Irish National Opera for the first time in this production. We spoke to her between rehearsals.
We’re rehearsing here in Dublin, which is great – I've never been to Dublin before. My first opera [as director] was actually in Belfast, with Northern Ireland Opera, and so there's something about coming back, and being on the island of Ireland that’s really kind of amazing. I'm really enjoying myself, and it just feels really apt, somehow, to be here.
It's great to have you; Fergus Sheil [INO’s Artistic Director] has a way of drawing different people into INO and creating good combinations, not only with singers but also production creatives, which has had really positive results.
Oh, he's amazing – I genuinely think he’s fantastic. I think he’s quietly more radical than almost any other intendant [opera company manager] around at the moment and he does exactly what this art form needs… as a director friend of mine says, if it doesn't make you want to throw yourself out the window then you’re not making opera, you’re staging a concert – and Fergus clearly cares about opera as a living art form.
As we saw with 'Griselda' back in 2019, in opera Vivaldi can be a surprisingly radical storyteller. How have you encountered his work, and what are your priorities?
There's something about baroque music, it just gets to my heart somehow. When I first picked up 'Bajazet' I thought this could be an HBO thriller, like you had all the kind of twists and turns and intrigue and unexpected relationships and the amazingly complex character relationships – you know there’s the guy who looks like he's going to be the hero actually turns into being something completely awful, the woman who seems like she's going to be the ingenue turns out to be completely radical. When you work with something like Vivaldi, because the music is so intense and so fast and so virtuosic then, I think, often people just rely on that to do all the work for them, but actually we need to meet that with exactly the same dramatic virtuosity and that's really hard. The big challenge for me was fighting for singers who are equally virtuosic as actors as musicians, and thankfully here we've got a cast who are absolutely doing stuff that I don’t even know some actors could do.
Where does the story begin?
The way that we're conceiving this piece is that, about a week before it starts, they’ve had the great battle of Ankara where Tamerlano defeated Bajazet. The battle was not expected to go that way at all, the world has gone on its head, and everybody is having to reconfigure. Now you’ve got Bajazet, who comes from the lineage of Ottoman Sultans versus Tamerlano – raised a shepherd – who has come from nowhere and is on top of the world.
As with any baroque opera, understanding the characters is key – how do you see them?
Yeah, it’s really fascinating, I was thinking about where they're all from and the four nations that are represented: you've got Bajazet, the sultan, who thinks with the sword first and lives on this kind of pulverising energy – all of his arias are just so visceral. With Tamerlano, I love the idea that he was a shepherd from the far East – he is so ruthless, just the smartest guy in the world and the most frightening: Jamie [James Laing] has been turning Tamerlano into something terrifying. Then you've got Andronico – he’s not built to be in the world, and he can't let go of the civilized kind of overthinking, so he's almost like Hamlet, he just thinks too much and doesn't act. Irene represents Trebizond which is kind of like Eastern Europe, and she has this unbelievable unshakable confidence, so she has no doubt at all in what she’s doing.
It’s really important to me to find characters who question the inheritance that we think we’re receiving from baroque opera, the idea that all these characters are noble and graceful. Where has that idea come from? Live performance has always been scandalous, and the Venetian audience would have been looking at these characters and seeing them, for all the grace and beauty, as barbaric Turks, basically. We need to be careful that we’re not assuming that these characters are supposed to be precious when, in fact, they actually have more grit. Lots of these operas are set in wars and wars are not pretty. It’s torture and invasion, it is horrifying.
The gender politics of these works are always interesting. There seems to be a clear differentiation along gender lines in this opera, with the male characters all stuck in their own codes of behaviour, while the female characters are almost free agents...
The female characters are far smarter than the male ones; actually, the whole question of gender in opera is really interesting. I think gender will continue to be a problem in opera if we continue to accept what we've been told about gender in opera. You can find depth and much more interesting stuff in any female character in opera, you just have to work at it, or not even work – I think it's always there. Vivaldi does a lot of that work for us in this opera: it’s the women and the servants who play a much longer, smarter game, interestingly. I mean look at [Bajazet’s daughter] Asteria getting all the action – for me, the real hero of the piece is Asteria.
Having Niamh O’Sullivan in this role, as Asteria, is great to see – how have you found working with her?
Niamh is brilliant, and she’s still so young, I just think she's going to be absolutely enormous. What’s beautiful is all this cast is so brilliant and talented, and all so bloody good looking! A cast of supermodels you know, but there's not a smidge of vanity amongst any of them, they are all absolute theatre monsters – they get up there and give everything.
It’s usual for Italian baroque operas close with a ‘happy ending’, which seems oddly forced here. How do you manage that?
I know, yeah it's interesting. I worked at Shakespeare’s Globe [London] and they kept the tradition of the jig at the end of the play which Shakespeare’s plays used to do. There's something interesting and messy and pagan about the fact that we go through this horror but then we go ‘ah well, it's all a dream, let's just revel…’ I don't think it’s something to fight against if that makes sense – there’s always a little sting in the tail and there’ll definitely be a sting in the tail in this one, but I won’t say anymore!
It’s exciting to see designer Molly O’Cathain involved in this season – we enjoyed her work on Francesca Caccini’s 'La Liberazione di Ruggiero' [for RIAM Opera] and other productions. What kinds of conversations have you had with her about the visual language for 'Bajazet'?
AT: Oh, I think Molly’s a real talent, a star in the making. We designed the whole thing over Zoom because the pandemic came along just as we were starting thinking about it, and so we kind of went on a long process. I’m a fan of foregrounding character and relationships rather than kind of having lots and lots of scene changes. Everything I’ve done recently has been quite simple, and so this is going to be one room.
We initially went down a route of thinking the setting would be war-torn, and maybe all dilapidated, but then we realized the more horrifying idea is just to set it in Bajazet’s palace, but now Tamerlano is wearing Bajazet’s robe, he’s eating Bajazet’s food and taken over Bajazet’s servants. I mean it was really interesting that Tamerlano took over Bajazet’s palace when he defeated him. Molly told me this story about being burgled and the feeling of psychological invasion, like you're just inside somebody when you’re breaking into their house, so we went with that.
The most famous image of Bajazet [in Christopher Marlowe’s play 'Tamburlane', and elsewhere] is that he’s caged up, and so we wanted to find a way of confining him that didn't feel like he was being pushed to one side. Tamerlano isn’t keeping him in prison to lock him away, he’s keeping him in prison so he can be daily reminded of how he can degrade this man, so we’ve come up with a kind of concept whereby Bajazet is harnessed to the set for the entire show, like a caged animal, he can't ever leave.
That's frightening – there’s obviously strong contemporary resonances in what’s going on there.
Yes, there is quite a lot of really horrifying stuff about Bajazet – as much as it's going to be brilliant, and I think it really will be brilliant, but I think everyone better just brace themselves...
‘Bajazet’ opens at the Solstice Arts Centre, Navan, on Sunday 16 January at 5pm, before touring to Cork (20 Jan - concert performance only), Limerick (22 Jan), Galway (25 Jan), Maynooth (27 Jan - concert performance only) and Dún Laoghaire (29-30 Jan), and then transfers to London’s Linbury Theatre in February.
For more details and booking information, see irishnationalopera.ie