Venues, producers, and artists are in the thick of challenges now, with livelihoods on the line, and already much has been lost. To its credit, Irish National Opera’s response has been to experiment with different online performance opportunities. First came the ‘Friday Opera Sessions’, featuring Zoom conversations and performances with Irish artists from their homes both in Ireland and abroad. This was followed in July by ‘Seraglio, the Mini-Series’, featuring the cast of what should have been May’s season of Mozart’s ‘Abduction from the Seraglio’, along with members of the Irish Chamber Orchestra, the opera re-imagined as a sequence of brief online encounters (still available on YouTube). To work around lockdown restrictions, Irish National Opera, in collaboration with the Office of Public Works, has now launched a series of three streamed concerts – ‘Mezzo Masterpieces’ – each featuring one of Ireland’s many fine mezzo-sopranos in recital with the INO Orchestra in a landmark setting.
Sharon Carty’s is the first, streamed live on Halloween and available for the week following, with the ensemble led by violinist Claire Duff in an all-baroque programme. In keeping with the night that’s in it, the programme centres on themes of enchantment and horror. The long gallery of Castletown House is transformed into a kind of dark dreamscape, lit in purples and blues, with the orchestral players visible as mysterious figures, all in concert black with matching face-masks, standing or sitting, scattered across the room. They give an elegant reading of the overture to Handel’s ‘Alcina’ to open, the playing lithe and sweet-toned, even dream-like. It is perhaps not as edgy or brilliant as the piece can be in the theatre, not helped by the distancing no doubt, but it sets the scene nicely.
An opera that opens with a decapitated head in a box surely deserves inclusion in any Halloween programme, and so it is appropriate that the opening aria is Cara speme from Handel’s ‘Giulio Cesare’. In this chamber setting, it becomes an intimate exchange, with Sharon Carty’s tonal beauty and elegant engagement sensitively matched by accompanists Norah O’Leary (cello) and David Adams (harpsichord). The full ensemble returns for Gelido in ogni vena (‘Like ice in every vein’) from Vivaldi’s opera ‘Farnace’, an atmospheric aria filled with icy symbolism—and the music of Vivaldi’s ‘Winter’ concerto—as the title character grieves for his lifeless son. The ensemble’s calmly understated approach works well here, with Carty projecting a steely intensity of expression.
The tragedy of Charpentier’s ‘Médée’, a work now largely neglected but one of the greatest operas of its time, proves more elusive. The aria Quel prix de mon amour (‘Such is the price of love’) is definitive for the sorceress Medea, allowing her a brief moment of grief before she delivers vengeance on her backstabbing husband. Performed here, however, it somehow seems oddly underpowered, and is only redeemed by excerpts from the incantation scene that follows, including spirited singing in the short Noires filles du Styx (‘Black daughters of Styx’).
A different voice and style is lent by soprano Kelli-Ann Masterson, who sings two contrasting arias for the character Morgana from Handel’s ‘Alcina’. She brings infectious fun and brilliant coloratura to the showpiece aria Tornami a vagheggiar (‘Return to me…’) and, later, an affecting appeal in the regretful Credete al mio dolore (‘Believe my pain’). The music of Handel has the last word, bringing the concert to a vivid close with Dopo notte (‘After a night so bleak’ – from ‘Ariodante’) performed superbly by Sharon Carty and the full ensemble, its message of hope after dark times more than welcome.
Seeing and hearing an ensemble and a singer perform together with such confident and assured style from a front-row seat is always a rare privilege, even if it has to be virtual for now. More concerts in the series follow, with Tara Erraught on 15 November and Paula Murrihy on 10 December. With fine performances, excellent sound and visual design, this new chapter in the story of Irish National Opera is well worth following.
Tickets for this concert are available until 7 November at this link
For information about upcoming concerts in this series see irishnationalopera.ie