Belfast Ensemble at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, on 26 March 2022
Having attracted rave reviews in its initial run in 2019, then winning the 2020 Irish Times Theatre Award for best opera production – beating both Vivaldi’s Griselda (Irish National Opera) and Tom Lane’s The Stalls (Cork Opera House) – Abomination has finally arrived in Dublin. The buzz of expectation is strong. The title comes from a 2008 radio interview on BBC Radio Ulster between the then politician Iris Robinson and journalist Stephen Nolan, in which Robinson condemned a recent physical assault on a gay man, while nevertheless describing homosexuality as “an abomination”. This interview is central to the opera, and her words, along with those of other members of her political party – notorious for its homophobia – form the opera’s text.
Part cabaret, part documentary music theatre, Abomination explores the grotesque and comical possibilities of the situation. Conan McIvor’s stylish video design, with its spinning newspaper headlines, forms an impressive backdrop, highlighting key words and contexts. The contrast between Rebecca Caine’s vivid vocal characterisation of Iris Robinson, powerfully sung, and the insistent speech of Tony Flynn (playing Nolan, a non-singing role), is absolute. Of the other soloists, mezzo-soprano Sarah Richmond stands out especially, playing all the other female characters with calm intensity. Matthew Cavan (as Sammy Wilson), dressed in orange high-heeled boots and singing “they are poofs, I don’t care if they are ratepayers”, is another highlight. Like a staged oratorio, however, the sung roles do not interact with each other – even the choral writing is often for unison voices – with much of the delivery directed straight to the audience, which makes for a thin dramatic focus.
Powering the music from the pit is the excellent playing of the Belfast Ensemble, conducted by Tom Deering. Composer Conor Mitchell’s feeling for orchestral colour and amplitude brings an enormous amount to this work and makes one curious to hear more. His writing for the stage is surprisingly allusive at times, not only musically but also theatrically, with the dancing figure of Iris’s (straight) lover providing an ironic evocation of the dreamscapes of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.
As a documentary opera, Abomination inevitably sticks closely to its material and its message, one that the audience is expected to know implicitly. The intolerance and abuse suffered by Northern Ireland’s LGBT community, tied within the cycles of hurt and provocation that constitute much of the region’s ongoing public discourse, proves impossible to escape. Despite the hope in Mitchell’s programme note of aspiring to a “joyful celebration”, when removed from its original context this work cannot transcend its topical, and painful, origins. Worse, for audience members unfamiliar with all the detail, the apparent scapegoating of a middle-aged female character, her words not always audible and surrounded by male voices, sails dangerously close to misogyny. While spoken documentary theatre can allow for a wide frame of discussion and nuance, opera works by suggestively mingling theatre, music, and storyline, offering little time for detail. For this, a broader perspective helps, and might have achieved something deeper here.
Conor Mitchell: Abomination: A DUP Opera
Sung in English (libretto by Conor Mitchell, after verbatim reportage), without surtitles
Produced by The Belfast Ensemble
Director: Conor Mitchell; Video Designer: Conan McIvor; Lighting Designer: Mary Tumelty; Musical Director: Tom Deering
Cast: Rebecca Caine (Iris Robinson), Tony Flynn (Stephen Flynn), Matthew Cavan, Christopher Cull, John Porter & Sarah Richmond (all other roles); Reece Hudson (Angel); Darren Franklin, Tara Greene, Helenna Howie, Ciara Mackey (Chorus)
The Belfast Ensemble (Instrumental Players)
Photography by Neil Harrison