Wednesday 12 December 2018

Lend me a tenor, and a soprano too, if you have one going spare

Orla Boylan
Orla Boylan

Emer O'Kelly

'To lose one tenor may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose a soprano as well may be considered carelessness."

Perhaps singers associated with Verdi's Aida will henceforth refer to it as "the Egyptian opera" for fear of calling down a curse on the production.

You couldn't invent the disasters which happened last week to the Irish National Opera (INO). Under its artistic director Fergus Sheil, INO seemed set to continue its storming progress with its biggest undertaking to date - an ambitious version of Aida at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre in Dublin.

The first performance, we are reliably informed, went off splendidly as expected.

But last Tuesday, disaster struck. Tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones became ill - too ill to sing the lead role of Radames on the night. Would the company be forced to cancel the performance? Would they heck. The show must go on!

One can only imagine the dedication and determination involved - especially when you realise that he did not have an understudy.

Gwyn Hughes Jones. Photo: ©Tristram Kenton
Gwyn Hughes Jones. Photo: ©Tristram Kenton

But at lunchtime, the Italian tenor, Stefano La Colla, a Verdi veteran, answered the call and touched down in Dublin on a flight from Milan. He walked the stage with director Michael Barker-Caven and designer Joe Vanek in order to memorise the physical hazards which might -literally - trip him up that evening.

And after that there was a dash into town to Louis Copeland, who opened his entire stock to the stricken company to provide "suitings" fitted to a returning war hero. (Fortunately, this Aida was designed in modern dress.)

Company executive director Diego Fasciati explained the crisis to the audience before curtain-up, leading to a hugely warm welcome for La Colla, who performed gloriously and would have deserved the welcome even if fully rehearsed.

But more was to come.

Soprano Orla Boylan was singing a magnificently full and heartfelt Aida for acts one and two. But after the interval, Fasciati appeared again, to announce that Orla Boylan was ill, and had been since morning, but had been determined to sing as much of the performance as she could manage. Nobody would even have guessed that she was in less than perfect health. But for acts three and four, the company brought on Swedish soprano Christina Nilsson to sing stage front-right, lit by a single spotlight, while Boylan mutely walked the role onstage. Nilsson had arrived in Dublin at 6pm. Her voice was rich, lighter, and lyric - and wonderfully impressive as a very different Aida.

The company's recovery was a triumph of heroic proportions - and will go down in the annals of Irish opera to become a legend surpassing even the night when the Wexford Opera House was invaded by hundreds of starlings, or the 1970s performance there of The Marriage of Figaro (I think) when half the cast landed on their bums due to a too heavily raked and polished stage.

But this is not a review. It is a tribute - it could be nothing less, with all involved surmounting almost insuperable odds to triumph over an impossibly trying situation, from the RTE Concert orchestra under Fergus Sheil, through Imelda Drumm remaining imperturbably tormented as the jealous Amneris and Ivan Inverardi as the darkly complex Amonasro.

Irish National Opera, along with everyone involved in this mammoth production, have given opera audiences an object lesson in the grit, commitment and drive involved in making memorable art.

Art isn't casual or easy: it requires determination and passion, and opera is perhaps the most demanding (as well as the most expensive) of all art forms.

It can't be played at: heart, mind, body and soul are required, and if ever there was a manifestation of blood, sweat and tears in operation, it was last Tuesday night on the stage of the Bord Gais Energy Theatre in Dublin.

And by the way, Orla Boylan and Gwyn Hughes Jones are making separate speedy recoveries.

Emer O'Kelly is the Sunday Independent Drama critic

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