Performers: Marielle Murphy & Keith McAlister
Director: Kate Guelke
Producer: Spark Opera
Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, Belfast – 11 & 12 May 218
A woman scorned, a woman deceived, a woman exploited, a woman spurned, a woman diminished. And here, in this mischievously subversive little gem of a performance, we also witness a woman in meltdown, humoured by her stage partner (male) and harangued by her harassed agent (male).
La Donna Abbandonata (The Abandoned Woman) was conceived, on the admission of one its creators, “… after a few too many drinks”. And it shows. It’s wild and wonderful but stylishly executed and even contrives to make amusing contextual use of the incongruous surroundings of the Ulster-Scots Hub’s exhibition area.
Stuff like this can happen when two gifted, imaginative women shrug off convention, put their heads together and go for broke. Belfast’s Spark Opera artistic director Kate Guelke has ambition and nerve. She had no inhibitions about inviting the Irish American soprano Marielle Murphy, one of the world’s most celebrated singers, to the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival for two small lunchtime gigs in an unlikely and ostensibly unsuitable venue.
The two met when Guelke was a lowly intern at Aachen Opera and Murphy was one of its rising stars. Murphy confided her desire to perform in Ireland, so the aspiring director took her at her word. And if proof were needed of the potential viability of this unorthodox piece, the thrilled response of the packed audience said it all.
Murphy exudes a charismatic, exotic stage presence, her powerful soprano coloratura voice swooping, trilling and swooning through a series of songs, portraying the shades and sufferings behind a fictional performer’s mounting mental breakdown. She is a gifted actor too, who can hold an audience in her hand and draw them into the humour and heartbreak of the libretto.
Murphy assumes the role of an attractive virtuoso singer in conflict with her pushy, middle-aged agent. On entering the space, the two can be heard quarrelling furiously behind a locked door, he pleading with her to get out on stage, she refusing flatly. Meanwhile, her long suffering accompanist waits … and waits. This will be the first of several such spats the audience will share.
Colin Carnegie does a splendid job as the agent, valiantly putting on a smiling face while, behind the scenes, attempting to control his brilliant but tempestuous client. Pianist Keith McAlister plays like an angel and provides a deliciously humorous interlude when, with desperation writ large across his face, he tentatively inches through a few familiar airs while wishing to goodness his companion would return from her – real or fictional – dash to the river at the end of Ophelia’s mad scene from Ambroise Thomas’s opera Hamlet.
The glorious repertoire ranges far and wide, from Rachmaninov’s Do not lie to me to Schubert’s Love has lied and Mozart’s Ach ich liebte (Ah I loved him), all of them evidence of a woman badly treated. With some vocal and verbal encouragement from her agent, Murphy delivers an emotional, quavering version of the Londonderry Air guaranteed to break the heart of the eponymous Danny, before collapsing into the brittle jollity of Bernstein’s Glitter and be gay – and the joyous news of her next paid job.
In theme and content, the whole thing is utterly of our time, replete with the subtext of the #MeToo campaign and carried off triumphantly by one of the world’s most compelling female operatic voices. Brava!