Review: The Juniper Tree

Review: The Juniper Tree

You might not automatically associate opera with minimalism but there is a significant catalogue. And The Juniper Tree (1985) by the great Philip Glass and his collaborator Robert Moran is getting a spirited account from Northern Ireland Opera at the Grand Opera House studio this week. Of course, the company is superb at fairy tales, as seen in their production of Sondheim’s Into the Woods a season or so ago, and this is based on one of the Grimm-est of them all.

The story, with all the tropes you could want, concerns a very wicked stepmother who murders her stepson to secure the future for herself and her daughter. Then, and this is a classical touch, serves the little boy to his Papa in a pie, served with his bony hand as a ghoulish spoon. Jenny Bourke acted the role with broad brush strokes, singing her way into the evil gestures with knife and tempting apple too. There was a genuine frisson when the boy (excellent Rachael Heater) died in the midst of the glossy fronds of the eponymous tree.

The husband and father (James Cooper) acted and sang his role well, suggesting he’s beguiled by women and doesn’t notice what is actually going on.

This is a tale of the subconscious and anything can, and indeed does, happen. The set must be mentioned as able director Cameron Menzies’ sinister black confection, that suggested decay and doom from the off, was like an extra character. It presented a few movement challenges at times but characterised the opera.

Mary McCabe, professional and an exquisite singer, gave the first wife full characterisation, bemoaning her childlessness as the red menstrual ribbons taunted her.

Musically, there is a seamless sense of accompaniment with great setting for the clarinet, keyboards, strings and harp scored unusually aggressively. Glass’ rhythmic urgency accompanied the tense psycho drama brilliantly.

At the end, after the death, when the stepmother and her Yahoo red haired identikit daughter (Petra Wells, rather good) are in charge, there’s a sense of wrong which is of course righted. The Bird, aka the little boy now divested of his sailor suit, returns to sing as a Bird. He tells his fate in a moving, repeated motif and is boom!, miraculously restored to life. While the villainess has succumbed to her fate.

Delivered with aplomb by the Chorus and members of Northern Ireland Opera’s Artist Development Programme, this was a thought provoking evening.

Jane Hardy

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