Northern Ireland provides the simultaneously historic and contemporary backdrop for Annilese Miskimmon’s staging of Bellini’s operatic swansong. Set in 1973, the warring factions interact in a single pared down interior resembling a dusty church hall, stacked chairs and pommel horse included.

The minimalist mise-en-scène and a famously implausible plot apart, the audience came to enjoy an outstanding example of bel canto, stratospheric Cs and Ds and agile coloratura characteristic of the repertoire. At a vocal level Pretty Yende excelled as Elvira with controlled coloratura and incisive attack. “Vien diletto” in Act 2 showcased her succinct phrasing and ornamentation. However, at times she lacked dramatic expression. The melancholic “Qui la voce” leading into this cabaletta juxtaposed the heart-rending lyric of this apparently jilted bride and her relatively staid stage performance. Though Yende sang well technically, she was not wholly convincing as the abandoned bride suffering a nervous breakdown.

In contrast Javier Camarena gave a convincing, clean performance with sound high notes and a timbre to match. He has played Arturo frequently and has made the role his own, giving us an expressive leading man both in 17th-century and Irish republican guise. He sang an outstanding “A te, o cara” in the second act, one of Bellini's most inspired melodies, performed with balanced rubato and excellent messa di voce. It was received with an ovation and calls for an encore. 

Mariusz Kwiecień’s richly intoned coloratura, legato and extended fiato provided a fine example in an assured performance for the role of Riccardo. The convincingly muscular duet “Suoni la tromba” with Marko Mimica (Giorgio), bass and baritone was a richly harmonious Roundhead call to arms against Arturo to avenge Elvira’s apparent disengagement. Mimica impressed with his deeply rounded aria but did seem to be off the beat at times, the conductor working hard to keep him up to speed in his solo interventions. Supporting roles with Gianfranco Montresor as Valton and Emmanuel Farald in the role of Bruno complemented the protagonists well. Henrietta was played discreetly by Lidia Vinyes-Curtis. 

In the early part of the opera, the Chorus were clearly behind the conductor’s beat and slightly disperse, but they rapidly improved and by Act 3 were delivering tightly sung phrasing. With the static set, they provided scenic movement, choreographed around the stage as a block. Attentive conducting from Christopher Franklin pushed the tempo well and generated the required agility from the score. The brass section played exceptionally well.

With Arturo’s execution in the form of a gruesome sectarian killing Elvira goes definitively mad at the end of the performance. It differs from Pepoli’s original storyline, but is a believable conclusion for this production. 

With a famously demanding score and vocal line specifically and meticulously scripted for the premiering principal singers of the time, Bellini’s score today serves as a historical benchmark that provides a real challenge for contemporary singers. Yende and Camarena shone against the dull backdrop and were well received by the audience.