The Chronic Identity Crisis of Pamplemousse

Greg Caffrey
Northern Ireland Opera
Brian Friel Theatre, Belfast

The Chronic Identity Crisis of Pamplemousse finds two of Northern Ireland’s youngest companies—the contemporary music-focused Hard Rain Soloist Ensemble and Northern Ireland Opera—coming together for the first time to produce a children’s opera that proves to be delightfully silly and colourful as well as being witty, warm and wise.

Rooted in the whimsical fantasy of traditional nursery rhymes, Greg Caffrey’s first opera tells the sorry tale of a lonely grapefruit pining for friendship. Spurned by his mouse neighbours and exploited by them for the sweet, juicy tears he regularly sheds, the eponymous Pamplemousse seems destined to live in sad isolation. Until, that is, the unexpected appearance of Apricot who, as luck would have it, is also searching for a new friend.

With a playing time of not much more than half an hour, Pamplemousse is a compact but lightly concentrated piece, Deirdre Armstrong’s colourful but minimalist set, adorned with vivid flowers and giant-sized fruit, and Katie Davenport’s bright, cartoon-like costumes a veritable feast for young eyes.

Composed to his own libretto, Caffrey’s highly accessible score receives pleasingly fresh and detailed performances from a seven-strong, on-stage band nimbly led by music director Sinead Hayes. Discretely accenting the contemporary idioms that have long been Caffrey’s musical signature, there is much to enjoy in music adroitly leavened and lightened by moments of attractive lyricism.

Countertenor Francesco Giusti brings surprising depth to the forlorn Pamplemousse, Nathan Morrison’s Apricot an exercise in contrast with his darkly rumbling bass. John Porter’s Narrator brings all the ingratiating ebullience of a circus ringmaster to bear while the mischievous mice are superbly sung by an animated quintet of young singers.

If Caitriona McLaughlin risks splitting the focus too often in scenes where the rascally rodents occupy the auditorium, her otherwise fluid, fingertip-delicate direction keeps things moving along at a steady, involving pace.

Despite its economy of scale and slender resources, The Chronic Identity Crisis of Pamplemousse is an enchanting, engaging chamber opera in miniature that also manages to be charming, lively, thoughtful and fun.

Well worth checking out as it travels to five other venues across Northern Ireland after its Belfast première.

Reviewer: Michael Quinn