“Mama killed me. Papa ate me. Sister bundled my bones under the juniper.”

Opera as a genre is no stranger to morality-warping scandal and violence. Inter-familial bloodletting is a norm.

But you would be hard pushed to find three short lines as loaded with horror as those above.

Filicide and cannibalism? Dark, even by the standards of the Brothers Grimm, whose fairy story, published in 1812, provided the inspiration for co-composers Philip Glass and Robert Moran, and librettist Arthur Yorinks’ opera.

A wealthy husband (bass, James Cooper) and wife (soprano, Mary McCabe) are childless. The wife cuts her finger, the blood drips on the juniper tree. She falls pregnant but dies bringing a son (soprano, Rachael Heater) into the world. The husband finds a new wife (mezzo soprano, Jenny Bourke) and they have a daughter (Petra Wells). Bitterly angry that her husband’s son, and not her daughter, will inherit the couple’s wealth, the stepmother murders the son. She makes a stew of his dead flesh and feeds it to her unsuspecting husband.

Best to leave the children at home for this grim Grimm tale?

At the open rehearsal the day before, the story goes that children present were relishing the prospect of seeing a good ol’ decapitation. In the end, the son’s beheading was symbolic, like much in this adaptation.

The absence of gore may have been a letdown for the kids, weaned as they are on the graphic violence of video games, and the de rigueur bloodletting in Lord of the Rings, The Dragon Prince, and A Tale of Dark and Grimm. Not to mention the true horrors of the daily news.

Yet the intimate setting of Belfast’s Grand Opera House studio theatre, which seats 120, brought every grimace, every darting eye and furrowed brow, each wicked leer and anguished expression home to roost. Glass and Moran’s opera may be short by traditional standards, but it does not lack punch, in the right setting.

The stark whiteface make-up and striking black eye-paint of leads and chorus conjures a fearsome gothic school of mime. When the son hangs lifeless in the arms of the juniper tree—strange fruit indeed—there are shades of Blade Runner’s replicant Pris in the sci-fi film’s memorable denouement, seemingly lifeless, and yet …

Northern Ireland Opera director Cameron Menzies’ set design—spare yet alluring—is in keeping with the chamber-music scale of this production. The juniper tree commands the stage. Of simple geometric form, its leafy, latticed branches bend and flex, as if breathing. The leads and the chorus of chirping birds weave in and out of the branches, heads popping up and down in neatly choreographed motion.

McCabe, Cooper and Bourke are strong leads, with the latter’s main aria perhaps the individual highlight. But it is the emotional shading in the performances of Heater and Wells that best captures the libretto’s curious alchemy of charm and the grotesque.

Musical director/pianist Frasier Hickland leads the six-piece chamber orchestra from the front, with Glass’s trademark modulating repetitions, particularly in Act One, leaving the pianist little room to draw breath.

The musical intro and the score for the rousing village scene are so obviously Glass’s alone—some might say he has been writing the same piece of music his entire career—but these sections apart, the baton-handing between Glass and Moran is not so clearly defined. Their interwoven musical lines are unrelentingly intense for sustained periods. Even the less hectic passages simmer with a coiled tension. The music, much like the tale, exerts a hypnotic grip.

Bad enough to murder your son, but then to shift the blame onto your daughter? The stepmother could easily rank as one of opera’s vilest villains. The little girl collects the boy’s discarded bones from her father’s stew and places them at the base of the juniper tree. The young boy is reincarnated as a juniper bird.

Regaling the villagers with his enchanting song, the juniper bird collects gifts—a gold chain from the goldsmith (baritone, Paul McQuillan), a pair of shoes from the cobbler (bass/baritone, Ryan Garnham), and a millstone from the miller (tenor, Desmond Havlin).

The majority of the cast and the five-strong chorus have come through Northern Ireland Opera’s Artistic Development Programmes initiated by Cameron Menzies. The N.I. Opera director understands that opera’s long-term future here requires the professional nurturing of home-grown talent. The seeds are already bearing fruit.

A storm brews, shaking the juniper tree. The unrest in the heavens is a portent for the stepmother’s death, crushed by the millstone dropped by the juniper bird.

Vengeance exacted, the son’s reincarnation reunites him with his father and stepsister, closing the tale on a fantastical note, served on a musically caressing plateau.

With its fairytale charms mingled with blood-chilling deeds, The Juniper Tree is an opera for child-like adults, and children older than their years. A compelling production that invites new appreciation of Glass and Moran’s infrequently performed opera.

Photo credit: Neil Harrison Photography