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Commentary

24 Jun 2019

Irish mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy on Salzburg, Sellars and Singing

For Peter Sellars, Mozart’s Idomeneo is a ‘visionary’ work, a utopian opera centred on a classic struggle between a father and a son written by an angry 25-year-old composer who wanted to show the musical establishment what a new generation could do.

Paula Murrihy sings Idamante in Peter Sellars’ new production of Idomeneo in Salzburg

An interview by Claire Seymour

Above: Paula Murrihy

Photo credit: Barbara Aumüller

 

Sellars will return to the Salzburg Festival this summer to present a new production of Idomeneo. It reunites him with conductor Teodor Currentzis, following their acclaimed 2017 interpretation of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito, which highlighted the opera’s vision of a path to democracy through restorative justice and reconciliation, and also with musicAeterna Choir of Perm Opera and tenor Russell Thomas as the eponymous king. Among the cast will be Irish mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy who performed with Thomas when Sellars’ La clemenza was staged at Dutch National Opera in May 2018, and who will take the role of Idamante. I spoke to Paula on the eve of her departure for Salzburg to begin rehearsals.

Preparing for my conversation with Paula, I noted with surprise that it is ten years since I heard her sing - at the Wexford Festival in 2009 , where I enjoyed her performances as Cherubino in John Corigliano’sThe Ghosts of Versailles, Hélène in Chabrier’s Une education manqué (alongside Kishani Jayasinghe’s Gontran) and in recital with Irish baritone Owen Gilhooly, when songs by Brahms and Duparc were partnered by some Irish folk-songs and audience participation.

Such eclecticism has been characteristic of her career. And if her repertoire has been varied then so have the venues in which she has created these diverse roles. While she has performed in the UK - with English National Opera and at Covent Garden in 2014 for example - it’s on the international stage that she has largely forged her path - with Opéra de Nice, Santa Fe Opera, Opera Theatre Saint Louis, Los Angeles Opera, Oper Frankfurt, Opernhaus Zürich, Dutch National Opera, Oper Stuttgart, Chicago Opera Theater, and Boston Lyric Opera, to name just a few.

Paula’s travels began after her initial studies in Dublin, when she travelled to North America, for further study at the New England Conservatory. Subsequently, Paula participated in the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme, San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program and was an apprentice at Santa Fe Opera. Paula explains to me that, having been ‘spotted’ when taking part in a competition in Germany in 2007, she joined Frankfurt Studio Opera in 2008 and a year later became a member of the Ensemble at Frankfurt Opera, where she remained until deciding to become a freelance singer two years ago.

Her time in Frankfurt gave her the opportunity to sing many roles at the right time for her voice. It also meant that she didn’t get ‘pigeon-holed’ in a particular genre and was able to explore a wide-ranging repertoire. She recalls one three-day period when she sang Medoro in Vivaldi’s Orlando Furioso on Friday, transformed herself into Mozart’s Dorabella (Così) the following evening, and then took a role in Parsifal (Flower Maiden) on Sunday! Alongside ‘central’ repertory such as Der Rosenkavalier, Hänsel und Gretel and Carmen, she had the opportunity to explore the operatic fringes, taking the roles of Lazuli in Chabrier’s L’étoile and Kreusa in Aribert Reimann’s Medea.

Being an Ensemble member brings security, of course, but as Paula points out companies are themselves protean entities, and two years ago the time seemed right for some changes, professionally and personally, as she wanted to spend more time at home in Ireland. 2017 saw her make her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, as Stéphano in Roméo et Juliette, and return to Santa Fe Opera as Ruggiero in Alcina and as Die Fledermaus’s Orlofsky. And, in April 2018 she appeared at the Teatro Real Madrid for the first time - as Frances, Countess of Essex in David McVicar’s production of Gloriana.

Recently, UK audiences have had the opportunity to enjoy Paula’s performances. In January this year she sang Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen with the Britten Sinfonia and Sir Mark Elder, and recently appeared in recital at Wigmore Hall with Malcolm Martineau. Performing on the recital platform is clearly something that Paula is keen to do more regularly. She studied lieder and French song during her time as a Britten-Pears Young Artist, with Martineau, Ann Murray and Robert Tear, and tells me that she loves these “miniatures”: “There are so many eras, so many worlds, so many voices … it’s an enormous amount of work learning a recital programme, but immensely rewarding. Together with the pianist the singer has to create an entire world: it’s a collaborative journey during which this world has to be imagined - there’s a lot of thinking! - then brought into being, then let settle. And, in performance there’s always an intimacy between singer and audience, even if the concert hall is large; the audience have to come to the singer and take in the different worlds created.”

But, first comes Idomeneo in Salzburg. Sellars’ has spoken about his new production : “One passage in the libretto reads: ‘Saved from the sea, I have a raging sea, more fearsome than before, within my bosom. And Neptune does not cease his threats even in this.’ That is what Mozart’s music is about.” Remarking that the Greeks’ pride in winning the Trojan War was self-deceiving and foolish - “on the way home, the ocean said: No, you didn’t win. Everybody lost. And the ocean started breaking their ships apart” - Sellars imagines Idomeneo as “the opera that describes the angry oceans, what it means to negotiate with the oceans for the future of the next generation.”: “where we are with global warming is exactly where Mozart was with this opera: an older generation still not getting it, and a younger generation already on the case in very exciting ways.”

While Paula is still to learn of the details of Sellars’ conception, she knows that the director sees a ‘radicalism’ in the work and the elements of youth and sacrifice will be highlighted. She’s certainly “open to any ideas”. One element that does strike me as interesting and potentially controversial is Sellars’ decision to excise much of the recitative, something that he also did in La clemenza di Tito into which he interwove other music by Mozart, such as the Mass in C minor and the Masonic Funeral Music. In Sellars’ words, “the music is orchestral from beginning to end. Which means that the usual quality of these Enlightenment operas - the fact that everybody explains what they’re about to do before they do it - is gone. The audience has no idea why people are doing anything. So, it becomes much more like a movie: you’re plunged into the situation. It creates suspense.”

Having sung the role of Sesto when Sellars’ production of La clemenza was seen at Dutch National Opera, Paula is familiar with this practice. Interestingly, just a few months before, in October 2017, she had sung the role with the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century and Cappella Amsterdam at the Concertgebouw, in a semi-staged performance. One could “hear every word of the recitative,” she explains, which, through text and gesture, created a “beautiful intimacy between Sesto and Tito”. The Sellars/Currentzis production, during which Paula was on stage for almost the entire performance, was a very different experience but one which she “adored”, valuing Sellars’ belief and integrity. And, she appreciates what Sellars was trying to achieve. She explains that in Idomeneo the omission of the opening recitative means that Idamante’s first line is ‘It’s not my fault’: “There’s a big backstory to create, and a narrative of love”. In any case, she laughs, apparently Mozart wasn’t that keen on recitative either and wanted to cut back!

It’s not Paula’s first appearance at the Salzburg Festival. She performed the Second Lady in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte in July 2018, alongside Matthias Goerne, Mauro Peter, Christiane Karg and Albina Shagimuratova, in a staging by American director Lydia Steier and with Constantinos Carydis conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. It’s a role which she has sung many times before, and it was her first role at Frankfurt. Paula reflects that while it’s nice to repeat a role, she also loves learning new parts - she is soon to sing her first Donna Elvira with Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, for example. I ask her if she has any particularly strong ‘musical leanings’, and she replies that she has an affinity for the Baroque, which has always seemed to her to share certain elements with Irish folk music. An improvisational quality, I wonder, or the primary of the voice? Paula suggests that the colours and clarity of the two genres seems in accord, and that there is a certain “vulnerability” which is present in both Baroque opera and Irish folk song.

She also especially likes singing in French, both in recital and in opera, as she feels that the language particularly suits her voice. At the end of the year she will sing Faure’s Pénélope for the first time, in Frankfurt, and looking ahead she would love to have the opportunity to sing Charlotte (in Massenet’s Werther) or Marguerite (in Berlioz’ La damnation de Faust). Opera casting agents, take note!

But, to return to the present, it’s the end of a long day, during which the next day’s travel plans seem to have unravelled! Despite this, Paula is generous, warm and self-effacing during our conversation. And, she’s obviously keen to begin rehearsals for Idomeneo. Reading about Sellars’ and designer George Tsypin’s plans to project images onto the rock walls of the Felsenreitschule throughout the opera, “floating up, floating down across this entire surface”, and at the end to “flood” the entire stage - “incredible footage of the plastic that is destroying the ocean right now and is in every one of our bloodstreams at this moment … will be projected onto the stone [here] - which is transformed into an underwater ruin” - one imagines that it’s going to be an exciting and thought-provoking experience.

Peter Sellars’ new production of Mozart’s Idomeneo opens the Salzburg Festival on 27th July.

Claire Seymour

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