The week in classical: Abomination: A DUP Opera; Aida – review

To protests and frayed nerves, Abomination: A DUP Opera by Conor Mitchell was given its world premiere at the Outburst Queer arts festival in Belfast in 2019. The work’s central character, Iris Robinson, is no fictional antihero but a former Democratic Unionist party politician, married to the former first minister of Northern Ireland. The opera’s verbatim text – grotesque language set to often tender, voluptuous music – is drawn from comments made by Robinson, a born-again Christian, and other DUP members expressing hatred of homosexuality. Robinson’s own extramarital affair, breakdown and suicide attempt have long fuelled gossip-columns in the region. To make opera out of such toxic ingredients was daring, but the work won ovations.

Last weekend, Abomination had its overdue English premiere, with three performances at the Southbank Centre. Shrill, unruly, mutinous, Mitchell’s 70-minute piece is a whirlwind stomp and canter through various operatic and cabaret styles, skilfully constructed and beautifully paced. One frustration at the Queen Elizabeth Hall was the overamplification. All the singers were miked, but Mitchell’s careful balance of voices and orchestration – the Belfast Ensemble, conducted by Tom Deering – felt quarrelsome, which was not the case in Belfast. It made the words hard to hear, though the meaning was always clear.

As an outsider, I experienced that opening night four years ago on tenterhooks, wondering at what point Robinson’s supporters would storm in and halt the performance. They did not, but each twist, each witty nuance of music and text, fanned the audience response to a fiery furnace. A QEH performance, distanced from events, was never likely to match that level of intensity. Nevertheless it came close. In a reunited cast, the remarkable Canadian soprano Rebecca Caine was outstanding as Iris Robinson, with actor Tony Flynn as Radio Ulster presenter Steve Nolan, questing and questioning, if finally equivocal. Four soloists, four chorus and a dancer make up the small, versatile team, with Mitchell’s own slick staging and video designs by Conan McIvor. More performances were scheduled for Brighton last week. This provocative opera deserves a wider audience.

Mark Elder, conducting, seems to have Verdi pumping through his veins. This was his night

At the Royal Opera House, Robert Carsen’s 2022 production of Aida is back for its first revival. The crisply drilled troops, red, white and blue flags, the salutes and heel-clicking were a chilling reminder of the power of ritual. From the hero’s investiture as Egyptian army leader, to the choral prayer for victory to the triumphal march, there is no shortage in Verdi’s grand opera, first performed in Cairo in 1871. Carsen’s Egypt, in Miriam Buether’s severe but handsome designs, is a modern totalitarian state driven by territorial ambition, war and religious fanaticism. The lovers share their death tomb with a store of weapons. Priests have become soldiers in khaki. Amneris, in heels and caped dress a la Penny Mordaunt sans sword, reeks of power. Playing this angry and devastated woman with all the ferocity and heartbreak she could muster, the Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča stole the show.

Elīna Garanča, right, as Amneris, with Angel Blue in the title role, in the Royal Opera’s Aida.
‘Ferocity and heartbreak’: Elīna Garanča, right, as Amneris, with Angel Blue in the title role, in the Royal Opera’s Aida. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The Radames of SeokJong Baek was ringing and resonant, though Verdi’s two-dimensional character remained flat. As Aida, the American soprano Angel Blue was at times uneven vocally, but her natural, compelling stage presence won out. Reprising their roles. Ludovic Tézier showed pain and anger as Aida’s father, Amonasro, and Soloman Howard was calm and masterly as Ramfis, The ROH chorus (directed by William Spaulding) showed their world-class skill.

Mark Elder, conducting, seems to have Verdi pumping through his veins. This was his night. He steered the epic moments as well as the subtle, spare scoring of the intimate passages, every moment steeped in maximum drama. Aida devotees will rail against the production – not generally liked much when it was new – and the liberties taken with the plot (I don’t remember Verdi specifying a table-laying scene). But Carsen’s interpretation gives the characters definition and clarity. As one who has always struggled with this work, I found it illuminating.

No apologies, one week on, for another eulogy to the musicians at Westminster Abbey. From the warmup act brilliance of the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, to the service itself under the orchestral and choral helms of Antonio Pappano and Andrew Nethsingha working in perfect harmony; to the formidable trumpeters; to each of the choristers and soloists; to the organist; to the composers past and present: this coronation was a display of impeccable music-making by singers and players who (with only a few exceptions) were trained in this country. Their discipline and hard work is beyond measure. Anyone paying attention already knows the perilous state of British musical life. The music that resounded in the abbey was more eloquent than any rant. Words add nothing. At least for now.

Star ratings (out of five)
Abomination: A DUP Opera