Alex Rome Griffin experiences Durham Opera Ensemble’s trio of performances, Barber, Bernstein and Britten.

DOE presented a night of opera featuring three institutions of their art, in Bede Chapel. It was directed by Young-In Youn and Produced by Hugo Millard with a strong team of musicians and musical directors. Since the seating relied on the pews facing inwards towards the aisle, the staging was traverse. In the middle of the aisle sat a table and four chairs, furnished with glasses of wine, the half dunk bottle and a deck of cards.

This was all in preparation of the opening act, Hand of Bridge by Barber. This was carried out with elegance and passion by the four players on stage. Chloë Griggs (Sally) was subtle and poised, her voice however struggled to compete with the swelling orchestra at times and some of her words were lost. The more direct voices of Adam Brown and Alistair McCubbin fared better but whilst their performances were rounded and strong, I felt that they lacked depth. The standout performance of the act was Hannah McKay, whose strong tone and clear diction were powerful and managed to work with, rather than against the orchestra. The cast coped well with the traverse staging, never turning their backs to the audience for too long, but the direction of the piece felt a tad muddy. The limitations of the table meant that the performers were somewhat cramped; if they moved away, the long and thin space of the aisle meant that they wandered into dimly lit areas that were away from the bulk of the audience. Whilst the limitations of the space are something the production team can’t change, some more careful direction would have been good.

The second act presented Trouble in Tahiti by Berstein. The performance was split into two different sets, a three-person chorus (Clara Falkowaska, Jacob Bie and Alex Moar) utilising close harmonies and dance and a duet about a man and a woman stuck in a stagnant relationship, beset by infidelity and thoughts of escape. The chorus managed the barbershop style harmonies well and sang expressively. They switched back and forth throughout the piece and this was handled seamlessly. The only real issue is that the choreography of their dance seemed a little half-hearted and they didn’t engage with it enough. What could have been a good chance to get some dynamics into the piece ended up falling flat. The main storyline was sung cogently by Adam Brown and Poppy Metherell. Brown executed the part of suited, workaday man with more panache than one might expect of that part and Metherell was fantastic as the beleaguered wife. Vocally they were both strong with Poppy as a standout performance; her voice was stunningly clear and she was so expressive that you could read every ounce of emotion on her face. The staging was touch odd however, the table again provided a focal point for the action but was set too far downstage, in a dimly lit area. It seemed very much out of place. Talking of lighting, the tech was an issue here and throughout much of the whole performance. The use of LED up-lighting, whilst useful for creating shadow, was absolutely blinding for anyone sitting in front of it, to the point where I struggled to see much of what was going on. This really needs to be fixed for the remaining shows. For all its faults though, Trouble in Tahiti was a deeply moving and polished piece.

The show concluded with Britten’s Noye’s Fludde, performed by the whole ensemble. The table remained on stage here and thankfully blocked off some of those footlights. The singing, whilst accomplished throughout, lacked a bit of depth, although it became richer when the whole ensemble sang. I wonder if some of these issues with tone were down to the orchestra; whilst technically faultless, they were quite small and therefore sounded a little thin. It is possible that this rubbed off on the singing. An honourable mention must go to the conductor (Tom Duggan) who handled the tricky subject of audience participation with humour and aplomb.

The piece was generally well directed, the action never became static with good dynamics from all performers. There were some instances when the ensemble grew and the whole thing felt a little messy; this is an inherent risk when filling such a narrow space like Bede Chapel with so many people. It didn’t detract from the overall impact of the piece.

This showcase was by no means a polished product, elements such as tech, direction and sound levels need some more attention before it can reach its full potential. That being said, it was immensely fun and somewhat more charming because of its imperfections rather than in spite of them.