“A portrait of the artist as a young man”, Pavilion Theatre – Review

“A portrait of the artist as a young man”, Pavilion Theatre – Review

James Joyce’s work wouldn’t look like the most likely candidate for a theatrical reduction; and yet, Irish theatre makers have engaged a lot with the writer recently.

Rough Magic opened their new production of “A portrait of the artist as a young man”, directed by Ronan Phelan and adapted by Arthur Riordan, at the Pavilion Theatre on September 28 to a full auditorium. Instead of an early 1900’ setting, we are thrown in the middle of a scant, abstract contemporary staging, with the cast ensemble wearing jeans (enigmatically too short, by costume and set designer Katie Davenport). A giant, faceless shape of the Virgin Mary overlooks the drama of the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, searching for his identity amidst religious oppression, sexual desires and a rising artistic sensibility.

Stephen is played in turn by multiple actors and a metatheatrical device (the swapping of his Ireland jersey) has the different on-stage narrators constantly changed into him, a sort of visual match for the free indirect speech often used in the novel. An overall playfulness dominates the production, which is animated by an apparent desire of making this piece of high literature popular and accessible: the pop songs, the sing-along church choruses, the Irish mammy constantly pregnant and so on.

Peter Corboy_PORTRAIT_Photos by Ste Murray.jpg
Peter Corboy as Stephen Dedalus.

Gender fluidity has almost become commonplace in Irish theatre, betraying some sort of anxiety about political correctness. We see Stephen played by both male and female actors. Society, Irish and not, is in desperate need of gender equality; but is theatre – or art – the place where to fight this battle? Yes, it is a universal humanity we are seeking to discover through art, something that transcends gender; but there is also an essential, archetypal polarity in the representation of a man as distinct from a woman.

While all the cast were very good, standout performances were those of Amy Conroy (especially as Dante at the Christmas dinner) and Peter Corboy as Stephen Dedalus.

Overall, Riordan’s and Phelan’s adaptation makes for an effective distillate of the original and offers some powerful moments that somehow manage to add to it, while making Joyce step down from his pedestal.

 

“A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” runs at The Pavilion Theatre until October 7, then tours around Ireland until November 3. Full details on https://www.roughmagic.ie/archive/a-portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-man/.

L’italiana in Algeri at Blackwater Valley Opera Festival – Review

Extract from review published June 4th on Bachtrack.com.

With all the laudable efforts to detach from opera the label of an elitist art form, there is an undeniable pleasure in attending an opera performance in a luxurious setting. The Blackwater Valley Opera Festival leverages exactly the seductive power of this combination. Given such plush context, the risk is that of experiencing an anti-climax. Did it happen with L’italiana in Algeri? Partially. While the average quality of the production was good, there were a few less successful elements that visibly detracted from its full enjoyment… Continue reading on Bachtrack.com.

 

Opera Gala at the Pavilion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire.

Friday June 22, 7.30 pm, tickets 25€/27.5€

This will be the eleventh year of the Opera Gala at the Pavilion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire, a well established annual event and a little gem in the opera scene in the Dublin area. The Gala is organised by DLR Glasthule Opera, brainchild of Anne-Marie O’Sullivan.

Promising young singers are showcased alongside more established ones, in a program full of popular arias. The singers are chosen by O’Sullivan herself, who knows a thing or two about singing being the former Head of Opera and vocal studies at DIT. You can actually have fun in the evening taking a guess at who may become the next opera star. A few years ago at one of the Galas, for example, I noticed a very self-confident young soprano, Jennifer Davis. Next week Davis will be replacing star soprano Kristine Opolais in the ROH production of Wagner’s Lohengrin in the role of Elsa.

David Brophy (casual)
Conductor David Brophy.

The 20-piece Glasthule Orchestra will be conducted by David Brophy. I have seen in the past a special alchemy in this orchestra-conductor combination, resulting in a particularly effortless and smooth sound. The very popular bass John Molloy will host the event and will also perform some arias during the evening. 

This year the program will include arias from The magic flute, The marriage of Figaro, Il ratto del serraglio, Don Giovanni, La Cenerentola, the Barber of Seville, L’Elisir d’Amore, Linda di Chamonix, Don Pasquale and arias from Handel. The singers will be sopranos Rachel Croash and Amy Hewitt, mezzo Sinead O’Kelly, tenor James McCreanor and bass Rory Dunne.

To book, visit the Pavilion Theatre website.

 

“Theodora”, Christ Church Cathedral, 8/4/18 – Review

“Theodora”, Christ Church Cathedral, 8/4/18 – Review

After attending the performance of Handel’s oratorio Theodora at Christ Church Cathedral, I can’t help quoting Dick O’Riordan’s words about the recent RIAM’s production of a Monteverdi’s opera (Il ballo delle ingrate): Theodora, too, “displayed once again what marvellous seams of musical gold and operatic nuggets continue to be mined from that era.”

A collaboration between the vocal ensemble Sestina Music and Irish Baroque Orchestra, the oratorio was presented in a staged version and set in contemporary times. Leaving aside the superfluous need to try and bring closer to us anything that in opera feels ‘old’, as well as the questionable but popular habit of dramatising the overture, the performance was superb.

The story tells of the Christian Theodora resisting the Romans’ order to worship the pagan gods, and of the converted Didimus, in love with her, ending up sacrificing his life together with Theodora in the vain attempt to save hers.

The young singers impressed. Countertenor Joseph Zubier as Didimus showed excellent singing and a promising voice. Peter Harris, as the compassionate Roman soldier Septimius, sang with conviction and control and displayed an alluring tenor voice. Bass Aaron O’Hare was a fitting Valens, the cruel officer.

Outstanding in the role of Theodora was Charlotte Trepress: her broad ranging soprano was always richly expressive and beautifully modulated, her performance culminating in the exquisite aria “Oh, that I on wings could rise”. The chorus was equally impressive. Conducted by Mark Chambers, finally, Irish Baroque Orchestra’s performance was as divine as Handel’s score.

If listening to Theodora alone, one could have a particularly hard time understanding all the blame thrown in the past on baroque music: superficial, overly ornamental and disjointed from reality. The infinitely intelligent writing of this work shows that ornamentation is not, necessarily, the opposite of substance.

 

Tosca – Bord Gais Energy Theatre, 14/3/18 – Review

Review first published on Nomoreworkhorse.com on 16/3/18.

As the one and only European capital without a dedicated opera house, there’s an element of novelty and treat that must be unique to Dublin audiences in going to the opera in a big, beautiful theatre. So attending Tosca – one of the pillars of the operatic repertoire as well as one of the most visceral operas ever written – in the shiny, contemporary frame of the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre was something I was really looking forward to. Nor was the enchantment broken at the opening of the huge red velvet curtains.

The production, by St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Opera and International Leisure and Arts, is a gloriously traditional one and we are treated to a visual feast of lavish costumes and stunning sets. The opera’s locations of Sant’Andrea della Valle, the interior of Palazzo Farnese and the rooftop of Castel Sant’Angelo are spectacularly recreated on stage by the means of realistic marble columns, checkered floors, heavy curtains, shiny chandeliers and impressive lighting design; the whole effect amplified by the generous proportions of the stage.

The standard of singing wasn’t, however, quite in par with the visual element of the production. Tenor Fyodor Ataskevich seemed quite attuned to the role of Tosca’s lover, Cavaradossi; but his singing was uneven and the high pitches required in the main arias weren’t handled very strongly.

Baritone Alexander Kuznetsov, as the evil chief of police Scarpia, distinguished himself for the most correct Italian pronunciation among the cast. On the other hand he lacked the impetus of this very distinctive character, with his voice remaining rather atonic for most of the performance, exception made for some rare moments during the famous duet with Tosca in the second act.

Celine Byrne is gifted with one of the most beautiful voices among Irish sopranos; her tone has a sensuous and velvety depth that lingers in your memory. “Vissi d’arte” was the perfect showcase aria for her natural talent and was splendidly performed, being by far the highlight of the evening. However, her acting during most of the opera left something to be desired and her recitatives weren’t compelling enough to be fully believable. The second act was her best one.

With the aforementioned exception of Scarpia, incorrect Italian pronunciation was a widespread and recurrent issue among the singers. Even if you are not a native speaker, as an opera lover you are bound to learn some of the most famous arias by heart, and hearing any straying from the original can prove disturbing.

Under the direction of Mikhail Tatarnikov, The National Symphony Orchestra execution was – naturally – impeccable and Puccini’s score worked its usual charm, particularly in the third act. I personally found the tempi of both love duets (in the first and third act) unbearably phlegmatic. This was exacerbated by the uncertainty of the tenor in the Italian pronunciation, particularly in a passage of the duet in the third act, where the addition of a syllable in a verse (“Amaro sol[o] per te m’era il morire”) visibly jumbled the flow of the singing.

Here’s the thing: no visual embellishment can make us forget that the essence of opera is in the singing. We can use as a litmus test the following: would we be moved if we saw the same singers in a shabby room wearing ordinary clothes? If the answer is yes, then we’ll be sure we are witnessing great opera.

Here’s hoping that such a beautiful theatre will be more regularly filled with opera, and with productions that can successfully balance the singing and the staging.

Sex and the opera: “Powder her face” tours Ireland in first Irish National Opera production.

Sex and the opera: “Powder her face” tours Ireland in first Irish National Opera production.

Let’s be honest: “contemporary opera” can sound a bit intimidating. But if you want to give it a try, “Powder her face” is a good place to start. A 1995 opera by Thomas Adès on libretto by Philip Hensher, it has collected critical consensus throughout the years, reaching the reassuring status of “a modern classic” (The Times).

This is a co-production of Irish National Opera and Northern Ireland Opera that has appeared in Belfast last year with extremely positive reviews, and it will now tour Ireland from the 24th of February until the 9th of March. “The audience will find that it is remarkably accessible, easy to understand and very entertaining. The music is a kaleidoscope of different styles and influences […] from the nostalgia of the 1930s to the edginess of more contemporary times” says Fergus Sheil, artistic director of INO.

Lost in opera’s divine music, one doesn’t really think about it, but operatic plots have always been fuelled by sex in all its shades, ranging from romance (La Bohème), to lust (Carmen), to violence (Rigoletto). But sex has always remained behind the scenes and only hinted at in allusive lyrics.

But what if the libretto becomes explicit and sex takes centre stage in the plot? That’s what happens in “Powder her face”. Leaving out feminism for a moment, a wife who collects more than 88 (paid for) lovers seems to be an extreme and unlikely subject for an opera. Except that it’s all true. The plot is based on the true story of the Duchess of Argyll and her scandalous divorce case in 1963. As the great Italian writer Luigi Pirandello said, reality always surpasses imagination.

Still, doesn’t the character of the Duchess risk looking like a caricature, therefore hindering any kind of identification from the audience?

Soprano Daire Halpin (who plays the maid and other roles in the opera) doesn’t think so: in depicting the downfall of the billionaire “dirty Duchess”, as she was called, “Mary [Plazas] gives such a sensitive portrayal of that process of ageing whereby no matter who you were, ageing is so universal and you can become so invisible. […] That’s incredibly moving and very real for many of us. […] And it happens to her in such a stark way, because she loses all her money, she loses all her influence, she loses her home […] she loses everything. I think it’s the real human heart of the story”. We also see that sex in the story “is used for control and power and manipulation. […] It becomes obvious later on that [the Duchess] is using sex as an emotional crutch to fill emotional voids in her life.”

This opera is “fast paced, witty, entertaining, moving and ultimately heartbreaking” says Fergus Sheil. It definitely looks like a must see to us.

For dates, venues and to book your tickets to “Powder her face”: http://www.irishnationalopera.ie/whats-on/current-upcoming-productions/powder-her-face.

* Picture: Daire Halpin and Stephen Richardson in “Powder her face”. Photo by Pat Redmond.

 

 

 

“Look back in anger”, Gate Theatre, 7/2/18 – Review

“Look back in anger”, Gate Theatre, 7/2/18 – Review

Although written in 1956, John Osborne’s play “Look back in anger”, which opened at the Gate Theatre last Wednesday, still manages to sound current today and hurls us into the midst of a socio-psychological perfect storm.

Young Jimmy Porter (Ian Toner), of working class origins but well educated, is married to Alison (Clare Dunne), a middle class girl; they live in a one room attic flat in the English Midlands. Cliff (Lloyd Cooney) is their indolent, semi-cohabiting friend.

Jimmy appears like a pretentious, nasty, self absorbed intellectual, as interested in political and cultural  matters as in continuously measuring and asserting the distance between himself and a seemingly lower order of human beings, which happens to include his best friend Cliff and his own wife.

After a start where the character of Jimmy doesn’t elicit many sympathies, little by little the play challenges the audience with a more complex moral reading. Jimmy is obnoxious and dislikable as only uncompromising idealists are. He is cynical and misogynist, but his world of beliefs is the result of an uncaring mother and of a childhood’s traumatic event. He’s the child who doesn’t want to grow up, who doesn’t want to give way to adulthood and its loss of passion, but who still has to face the real world every day. He’s a fragile monster.

The moral compass, symbolised by the character of Helena (Vanessa Emme), Alison’s stern friend, gets seemingly broken by the comical twist at the end of second act, where moral contempt is unexpectedly turned into physical attraction, replicating Jimmy’s relationship with his wife.

In a play that is rather unbalanced towards monologue, Alison appears to be, in fact, more of a metaphor than a fleshed out character: she represents the coexisting attraction and repulsion of the working class towards the middle class. She also possesses the beauty and coldness of unattainable perfection.

In this anti “Romeo and Juliet” play, love doesn’t conquer all, but it is achingly conquered: by class division, daily routine, personal traumas, misogyny, narcissism. It is conquered by anger. Education doesn’t always turn out to be liberating, and sometimes only makes social frictions more acute.

The cast’s performances were all very strong, with Clare Dunne standing out for delectably polished naturalness.

I’ve personally found director Annabelle Comyn’s metatheatrical choices unconvincing. The voiceover reading of the playwright’s stage notes, the increasing dissociation of the actors from said notes, the set design (by Paul O’Mahoney) showing the theatre walls around the staged flat, were all aimed at “questioning the author’s voice”, to use the director’s own words. But why should we be questioning an artist’s voice, other than on strictly artistic terms?

While on a purely theatrical level these devices end up appearing as distracting, the distancing and dissociation from the roughness of the text present a more specifically ethical question: should art only be representing the good? Just because some of the issues present in the play – like misogyny and violence – are still painfully current it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t see them on stage. Theatrical representation (or any artistic expression, for the matter) was never meant to be an endorsement of behaviour. We do not need to fight literary villains. On the contrary. We need to let them talk, and shout, and be as bad as they can be. Smoothing the unsightly parts of a work of art invalidates the very concept and nature of theatre and its cathartic power.

“Look back in anger” only real – that is, artistic – issue is that it doesn’t always succeed in lifting the autobiographical to the universal. Even so, it will still speak to many today. A complex and controversial work that is definitely worth seeing.
“Look back in anger” runs at the Gate Theatre until March 24. Further info / bookings gatetheatre.ie

* Photo by Luca Truffarelli